We’re in the heart of spring – daylight saving has kicked in, the temperature is getting warmer and we’re transitioning into the social end of the year, with barbecues and gatherings becoming a calendar staple.
It’s also arguably the best season for fresh produce and cooking, with new growth and freshness symbiotic with spring. There’s no better time to flex the culinary muscles and celebrate the Australian-grown fruit, vegetables and meats on offer around the country.
Spring is the season for fresh veggies – peas, beans, leafy greens, through to new roots in beetroots and potatoes.
And for Melbourne-based chef Scott Pickett, there’s no better way to herald the season than with spring lamb.
“Just when you’ve got through a long Melbourne winter – it’s beautiful,” said Pickett, who’s responsible for Estelle, ESP and Saint Crispin in the Victorian capital.
“In the restaurants we’ll go through eight, 10, 12 spring lamb a week.”
He sources the lamb from a different farm every year – this year, it’s from a property just outside Ballarat in country Victoria, and in the past he’s gone as far as Gippsland and Flinders Island just to “mix it up”.
For the home cook looking to capitalise on the meat, Pickett says to head to the markets and independent butchers.
“Go to a good butcher that is as seasonal as possible, because you can get lamb all year round,” he told The New Daily.
If you’re just starting out with lamb, Pickett recommends tackling the shoulder first with a slow roast or slow braise.
For those who want to try the next level up, grab a leg and have a go at deboning it yourself – “That’s what I start all my young chefs on,” Pickett says.
Butterfly the leg and let it linger in a green marinade full of fresh garden herbs, garlic, lemon and olive oil.
For accompaniments, let the season do the work for you.
Pickett will be looking at salads full of zucchini and their flowers, peas, beans, and herbs, topped with fresh goats curd or ricotta.
He also recommends cooking up duck fat-roasted new season potatoes, as a hearty side.
Most of all, he says, spring is a time to have fun and explore.
“Just really cook for the season. Shop at your local markets … have a look for fresh, new things,” he said.
“Try new things you don’t know about. Kohlrabi is coming through – if you don’t know what to do with it, just ask (the seller).”
Scott Pickett’s spring lamb
When I think of spring, my first thought is lovely new-season lamb. We like to use Flinders Island milk-fed lamb: the flavour and quality are unsurpassed. This dish also takes me back to my childhood when my mum and my grandmother, Audrey, used to cook us a Sunday roast dinner as a family treat, with all the trimmings, and if we were lucky, dessert too! Sauce paloise is one of those great derivatives of hollandaise, a classic egg emulsion sauce rich with butter and spiked with mint.
For the lamb, preheat the oven to 160°. Use kitchen string to tie the leg up tight so it holds its shape and is firm to the touch. Season well with salt and pepper. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat and sear the lamb until it is golden all over. Place the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan. Combine the olive oil, lemon zest, rosemary, thyme, mustard and garlic. Brush all over the lamb, keeping some to use later.
To cook the meat to blushing pink, roast for 1 hour, occasionally brushing with the reserved oil mixture. Test with a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat, but not touching the bone. The temperature should be about 55°. Allow to rest for 20 minutes.
To prepare the chard, separate the leaves from the stems. Keep the leaves whole and trim the ends of the stems on the diagonal. Heat the oil and butter in a large heavy-based pan over medium heat until the butter foams gently. Add the garlic and cook until golden and fragrant. Add the chard stems first and cook for 1 minute, then add the leaves and let them wilt down, adding a splash of water if needed to create steam, for a few minutes or until nearly tender. Add the zest and juice, grate some nutmeg over, and season to taste. The stems should be tender and the chard green with a delicious citrus flavour.
To make the sauce, put a pan of water on to simmer. In a heatproof bowl that will sit comfortably over the pan, combine the egg yolks, tarragon vinegar, warm water and half of the lemon juice. Place the bowl over the pan (make sure the base of the bowl doesn’t touch the water) and whisk until the mixture forms a ribbon when drizzled back over itself. Remove from the heat. Slowly add the butter in a steady stream, whisking constantly until incorporated. If it looks too thick, add a touch of warm water. Mix in the mint and the remaining lemon juice, and season well with salt and pepper. Serve the sliced lamb drizzled with sauce paloise, with chard on the side.
1 x 2–2.2kg leg milk-fed lamb
Freshly ground black pepper
150 ml extra virgin olive oil
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
½ bunch rosemary, leaves chopped
½ bunch thyme, leaves chopped
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
10 cloves of garlic
2 bunches rainbow chard, washed thoroughly
100ml extra virgin olive oil
50g butter or lamb dripping
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
6 egg yolks
50ml tarragon vinegar
50ml warm water
Juice of ½ lemon
250g butter, melted and still warm
1 bunch mint, leaves picked and finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
This is an incredibly versatile dish that can be paired with a number of different wines. The most important thing to consider here is savouriness. Steer away from wines that have a sweeter fruit profile. Try cabernet sauvignon-based wines from Medoc in Bordeaux or mourvèdre-based wines from areas like Bandol in the south-west of France.
It’s always better and cheaper to buy produce when it’s in season and at its peak, and lamb is no exception. Ask your butcher for the best new-season lamb they have, ensuring it’s a nice pale pink for milk-fed, or rosy red for grass-fed lamb. If you want to truss or tie your lamb, ask for some butcher’s (kitchen) string too.