When I first met Johnny Apple I was living in Italy and he was still a crackerjack, award-winning, highly respected foreign correspondent for The New York Times, a man whose charm and raffish air belied an extraordinary focus and discipline. Johnny also had a developing reputation as an irrepressible gourmand, evident from the gleeful manner in which he attacked both plate and glass, as well as his already substantial girth. One of my favorite Apple stories took place in Tehran, in the last days before the Shah flew out and the Ayatollah flew in. Aware that the impressive wine cellars at the InterContinental Hotel would be one of the first casualties of the revolution, Johnny organized a banquet of journalists with the object of making as large a dent as possible in the wine supply. He called it a “Light at the End of the Tunnel” party and only reporters who had also served in Vietnam were invited to attend. In the event, the party was invaded by a large contingent of non-Vietnam veterans who contributed mightily to the effort. A lot of wine went down reporterly gullets and a lot less wine was poured in the gutters of Tehran as a result.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Decades later, having covered Vietnam, Iran, the higher levels of the British and French foreign offices, and several U.S. political campaigns, Johnny would be reassigned, at his own suggestion, to roam the world for The Times, not investigating foreign matters so much as recording his gastronomic escapades with his wife Betsey. It was an assignment, with an expense account to match, that had almost every other Times reporter positively green with envy. We were all stumped by the question: How on earth did he get away with that?
But Betsey and the global-eating assignment came later. Back in the day — the 1970s — during one Easter week I was planning a Sunday feast at our family farmhouse in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Johnny was staying in Perugia with friends — of course it would be the head of the Perugina chocolate factory, who was also a great patron of music and musicians. Johnny loved music almost as much as he loved food. Not quite, but almost.
I can’t remember now what persuaded him to leave the chocolate factory and the music, but leave it he did to drive up into our hills. We were gathering an assembly from near and far, types that ranged from fellow journalists (the man I was married to at the time was of that tribe) to hippy English back-to-the-landers, a pair of poets. A world-renowned feminist never shy of expressing her opinions brought along an embarrassingly younger lover, then took one look at the more handsome of the hippies and forthwith settled on him.
I think of that meal every year as Easter looms because I outdid myself — not just because of Johnny, although of course I wanted to impress him. But somehow everything fell into place, as it often does — the lamb was tender, the early peas and fava beans had all the immaculate delicacy of new spring vegetables. The wine was a perfect match, even though the husband carefully steered the best bottles toward his and Johnny’s end of the table, leaving the local plonk for the hippies and poets.
But what was most wonderful was the lamb, a couple of legs of a very young critter that I prepared from a recipe developed by an old friend, Sara Armstrong, once the chef-doyenne of the renowned Copper Kettle restaurant in Aspen, Colo. She too had traveled the world, but as a diplomat rather than a journalist, and had assembled a vast collection of recipes that were the backbone of that amazing establishment. It’s been years since the Copper Kettle closed, and Sara has long since gone to the great kitchen in the sky, but every year at Easter I try to make what she called simply “Roast Lamb With Dill.” I cook it in memory of her, and in memory of Johnny Apple, who ever after expressed amazement at what he called Roast Lamb With Coffee. And what do I call it? Slow Roasted Lamb for Easter.
Slow-Roasted Lamb for Easter
- Prepare the lamb by inserting garlic slivers all over the fleshiest parts of the leg. Use a small sharp-pointed knife to make incisions and slip the garlic slivers in. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours before roasting.
- Preheat the oven to 275 F.
- Set the lamb leg on a rack in a roasting pan. Rub the leg all over with the molasses, then (first washing and drying your hands) sprinkle generously with salt, pepper and tarragon, plus half the dill and the coriander.
- Roast the lamb in the preheated oven for about 3½ hours, or until a meat thermometer reads 170 F. Baste the lamb every 30 minutes or so with a mixture of coffee and wine, gradually blending in the accumulated juices on the bottom of the roasting pan.
- When the roast is done, remove but keep it warm while you prepare the sauce to serve with it.
- In a small saucepan, crush the egg yolks with a fork into the vinegar. Blend in the remaining dill and the parsley.
- Strain the juices from the roasting pan, removing as much fat as possible. Add them to the saucepan, set the pan over low heat and blend with the egg mash.
- Add lemon juice and blend, then taste and adjust the salt and pepper.
- Finally stir in the coarsely chopped egg whites. Bring the sauce to a boil just before serving.
- Carve the lamb in thin slices and pass the sauce.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean.”
Photo credit: Bocky Tandiono / iStockphoto.com