Must be time to make a trip to the basement to bring up the box marked “spring”. At my house the box holds an edited version of a once colossal carrot collection, including various serving bowls and platters, a needlepoint carrot pillow, carrot wire and wicker baskets and even carrot taper candles. Other items in the box are seashells, various hand-painted eggs, Jadeite eggcups and bird nests featuring tiny faux robin’s eggs. Once that box is unpacked it’s time to plan some springtime meals.
Spring is a time for celebrations, and that means food and food traditions. Many will celebrate Passover beginning the evening of Friday, April 6, others will observe Easter on Sunday, April 8, and some will simply celebrate spring (preferably with strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream).
Being the first-born of six kids in my Catholic family, I learned about Lent, Easter and the Easter bunny at an early age and always stayed up late with Mom decorating and dyeing eggs.
In accordance with my family’s traditions, I grew up celebrating Easter, with baked ham, scalloped potatoes, new peas, homemade rolls, multiple pies and cakes plus lots of decorated eggs, chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps®. (As we grew older, Mom added the tradition of dying at least one raw egg to mix in with the hard-cooked. We had some great egg toss games to see who would end up catching a gooey mess.)
In addition to my traditional Easter, I have had the privilege of being a guest at a Passover Seder (pronounced SAY-dehr). Passover, one of the most beloved of Jewish holidays, commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago and celebrates spring harvest in Israel.
After sundown on the first day of the eight-day-long observance of Passover there is wine (or grape juice) and three Seder Plates of symbolic foods along with the ceremonial reading of the Haggadah, the story of Exodus, after which the lavish Seder meal is served. Since the amount of time it takes to read the Haggadah varies, timing of the meal can be tricky. Actually, while researching this entry I found a website offering a modern, downloadable “Rabbinically approved and refreshingly brief” version of the Haggadah.
The best-known Passover food is unleavened cracker-like matzo, (matzo is a word that may be spelled a dozen different ways). Matzo is not only the exclusive “bread” consumed during Passover, but matzo meal is used in baked goods along with potato starch in lieu of flour and of course, there’s matzo ball soup.
Matzo ball soup is deliciously comforting. At first bite, matzo balls made a lasting impression on me along with the admonition to use schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) not oil or margarine in the recipe and to be sure and let the batter rest overnight in the refrigerator. I was told, “It’s what makes them light and fluffy”. I’ve never forgotten and sometimes only homemade matzo ball soup will do.
Gefilte fish, served with “red” horseradish (grated horseradish colored with beet juice) became a favorite as well. I’ve never attempted the traditional recipe made with many different types of fish. I have to admit, on occasion, I’ve purchased the Manischevitz brand in a jar in the grocery store’s kosher food section, but it doesn’t match my memory of the savory, delicate, quenelle-like homemade fish pillows I remember.
Gefilte fish recipes vary by ancestral region and cook to cook and can be sweet or savory. The recipes handed down were once a way to stretch fish so that even the poorest families could enjoy it on holidays and the lengthy preparation and cooking process began well before Passover. Carp, whitefish and pike were deboned and mashed into a paste along with eggs, matzo, onions and carrots, shaped in balls and cooked in a court bouillon-like broth.
For modern cooks, Faye Levy’s Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2008) has an amazing version of Salmon Gefilte Fish Balls, cooked in a quick fish stock or vegetable broth, which takes less than 10 minutes to prep and 30 minutes to cook. Levy suggested these fish balls be served atop a springtime green salad with sugar snap peas and asparagus.
For the past 20 plus years, my traditional Easter meal has included lamb. (As a matter of fact, since learning about Sequatchie Cove Farms near Chattanooga and the Keener’s hormone and antibiotic-free, pasture-raised lamb now delivered monthly to Birmingham, I’m enjoying lamb regularly.)
Whatever your celebration, be sure to include some of the best seasonal produce as side dishes. At their peak in spring are artichokes, baby spring lettuces, English peas, fava beans, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and more. Here are recipes for grilled lamb and roasted asparagus appropriate for any spring meal.
Roasted Asparagus with Garlic & Lemon
2 lb. asparagus washed and trimmed
2 T. olive oil
Slivered garlic cloves to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Zest and juice of one lemon
Preheat oven to 500 degrees and evenly coat the asparagus in the olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper in a glass oven-proof 9” x 13” baking dish. (Alternately, add asparagus to a grilling basket and cook on the grill.) Roast for about 5- 8 minutes until tender-crisp. Remove from oven, sprinkle with lemon zest and juice. Serve immediately.
Grilled Butterflied* Leg of Lamb
1 Butterflied leg of lamb (4-5 lbs.)
1 C. dry red wine
2 small bay leaves
3/4 C. soy sauce
Zest and juice of one lemon or a small orange
6 large garlic cloves, crushed
½ C. chopped fresh mint
2 T. fresh rosemary leaves
1 T. coarsely ground black pepper
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a non-reactive bowl. Pour over lamb in a large freezer bag. Seal and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 and up to 6 hours turning frequently. Remove bag from refrigerator and leave at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Prepare hot coals for grilling. Drain the meat reserving the marinade. Grill the lamb 4” above the hot coals about 20 minutes on each side, basting frequently with the marinade. Check the lamb for doneness with an instant-read internal thermometer** after 30 minutes of grilling. (Internal temperature for rare lamb is 135 -140 degrees, 150 -155 degrees for medium.) Remove from grill, loosely cover with foil and let rest for 5 minutes before carving into slices. Serves 8.
*Ask your butcher to do this for you. Butterflying (essentially deboning) the leg of lamb leaves you with a flatter piece of meat that will cook more consistently.
**Overcooked lamb is the worst, so an instant-read internal thermometer is important.
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