Maybe it’s because I grew up spending Christmas Eve in Chinatown with my clan of New York City Jews, but celebrating the holiday has always felt like a work in progress. Since I’m not wedded to any one particular tradition, I’ve jumped around, trying different ones on for size.
One of them has become braising a large hunk of meat. For our family, it’s the ideal holiday dish. We can braise it in advance, serve it to friends on Christmas Eve, then reheat the leftovers for Christmas dinner, when we are too tired from opening presents and our annual Christmas walk around the park (one of my new favorite traditions) to want to cook anything new.
We’ve varied the contents of the braising pot over the years, but keep coming back to leg of lamb because we both love it and since we don’t eat it very often, it seems like a special meal. Plus, braising a bone-in leg of lamb is an excellent way to cook it. The marrow flows into the sauce, thickening and seasoning it, while the meat collapses and becomes spoonably soft.
In this recipe, I’ve added anchovy and olives to the pot to give the sauce a tangy depth that works well with all the rich meat. It’s especially nice served over a smooth, sweet root vegetable purée spiked with garlic, which acts like a velvety sauce. On Christmas Day, we toss the leftovers with pasta. It’s a wonderful new two-day tradition, boiled down into one pot.
*Note: Lamb legs can be really big. Sometimes they are so big that they barely fit into your pot and the bone sticks out in a very ungainly manner. If you think of it while you are at the butcher, ask them to trim the bone end down a bit, which will make for less awkward handling.
Shanks can be substituted for the leg of lamb if you like. You’ll need 6 of them. If you like, you can brown them before braising. I usually do because it does intensify the lamb-y flavor, and unlike trying to brown an unwieldy bone-in leg of lamb, browning shanks is easy. Then, the shanks will cook in about 2 ½-3 hours.
**Note: If you make the braise the day before you want to serve it, you’ll be able to degrease the pot. Let the lamb cool, then chill overnight. In the morning, spoon off the layer of yellow fat that’s risen to the surface and discard it. Then, reheat the braise before serving. Do this before adding the garlic paste, which should be done just before serving.
In a large saucepan, combine the celeriac, potatoes, parsnips, garlic, and bay leaves. Pour in the water and 2 tablespoons of the kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender, 20-25 minutes.
Drain, discard the bay leaves, and transfer the root vegetables and garlic to a food processor. Add the butter, remaining salt, and nutmeg; process until very smooth. Taste and add more salt, if necessary. Keep warm or reheat before serving.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Rub the lamb with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season it with 1 tablespoon of the salt and 1 ½ teaspoons of the black pepper. In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the stock and wine to a boil over medium-high heat. Allow it to bubble gently and reduce while you sauté the vegetables, about 10 minutes or so.
In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the remaining olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 7-10 minutes. Stir in the carrots, parsnip, anchovies, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, remaining pepper, rosemary, sage, and bay leaf. Turn off the heat and pour in just enough of the stock-wine mixture to cover the vegetables. Place the lamb, fatty-side up, on top of the vegetables.
Transfer the pot to the oven and cook, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Then add the remaining stock-wine mixture, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Cook for 1 ½ hours, at a bare simmer, reducing the heat if necessary, then turn the lamb over. Cook 1 ½ hours longer and turn the lamb over again.
Uncover the pot and stir in the olives. Cook for another hour, turning the lamb after 30 minutes. At this point, the lamb should be soft enough to cut with a serving spoon. If not, cover the pot and continue to cook until it is.**
Just before serving, mash the garlic and the remaining salt to form a paste. Stir it into the lamb’s pan juices. To serve, make a bed of root vegetable purée on each plate. Cut the lamb with a serving spoon and lay some of it over the purée, along with some vegetables and pan juices.