Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday! I dream of turkey and dressing and cornbread and pumpkins for weeks leading up to the day. Of course, when all the dishes are done and the tablecloth is in the washing machine, I start to realize that I like Christmas, maybe just a little more. All the sweets, breads, nuts and big cinnamon rolls for breakfast! I mean, how could Christmas NOT be your favourite holiday, really? Oh, but then… Champagne and caviar and oysters and fireworks and the promise of a blank slate and a fresh start in the year to come and I’m certain that New Years is, indeed, my favorite. But when the confetti settles, the house is cleaned, the windows are opened letting in the freshness of spring, I determine that, in fact, Easter must really be my favourite holiday. With fresh asparagus finally showing up in the markets and sweet peas vining up the garden gate, we realize how much we’ve missed these little delicacies during the cold, dark months. And fresh flowers and pastel skies that perfectly match the eggs in the kids’ Easter baskets. Yes, it’s Easter, for sure! But to be honest, how could I ever choose favourites because the truth is that any holiday that involves food is my absolute favourite.
Some families have a set Easter menu. Growing up we always had ham with glazed carrots and hot cross buns. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I fell in love with lamb. But for me, Easter is a time to experiment, to change up the menu from year to year and develop new recipes based on the colours and flavours I find in the market. Maybe it’s because Easter doesn’t fall on a set date each year, and what’s available in late March is different than what is fresh in mid-April. Even if every holiday can’t be my favorite, with the bounty of spring vegetables,herbs and flowers, Easter is definitely when I feel most inspired in the kitchen.
Spring feels, to me, like the season of light. Clothing is lighter as wool and velvet are replaced with silk and cotton. The food is light and silky, as well. Even the light, itself, is somehow “lighter.” In winter, it casts harsh shadows across everything it touches – it’s fun to photograph, I have to admit, but it’s also a reminder of how far away summer is. But recently I’ve noticed a change. The days are longer and the sun is higher in the sky, and there are no longer any harsh shadows in the kitchen, just an opalescent glow through all the windows, enticing me throw them open and let in whatever magic is out there. Spring light is entirely different to photograph. As a photographer, each season I feel like I have to reacquaint myself with the natural light. Again, spring is the season to experiment!
Tomorrow we are traveling to Santa Fe, but I couldn’t leave without sharing the menu I have in mind for Easter this year. It starts with a silky asparagus and parsley soup, with just a touch of cream – not enough to make it feel dense or heavy. Then a roasted leg of spring lamb, seasoned with Dijon, balsamic and rosemary. When I cook a leg of lamb I always serve it on a bed of white beans. It’s a classic combination. Don’t be intimidated by cooking beans at home, it’s a long but easy process. The only rule is that the beans absolutely must be soaked overnight. Then I boil them and once they’re tender I prepare them much like a rice pilaf, by sautéing them with a bunch of aromatics. For dessert, I haven’t stopped dreaming of this spring-inspired lemon-blueberry cake, which I first made a few weeks ago. It’s a double layer lemon cake filled with blueberries and iced with a tangy lemon-cream cheese frosting.
These are the dishes that really speak of spring to me! And this is why Easter is, without a doubt, my favourite holiday… at least for a few weeks!
2 TBSP butter
1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 lbs asparagus
1 TBSP flour
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup parsley, chopped (plus more for garnish)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 tsp coarse ground white pepper
salt, to taste
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Prepare the asparagus by washing and removing the dry end at the bottom. Cut the tops off of the asparagus and set aside to use for the garnish. Roughly chop the remaining stalks.
In a large soup pot, heat the butter and olive oil together until melted. Add the chopped onion and cook until it softens, 6 – 8 minutes. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and the garlic and cook for 5 minutes longer. Stir in the flour and cook, a minute longer. Slowly pour in the broth, stirring vigorously to break up any clumps of flour. Add the chopped parsley. Bring to a low simmer and cover. Cook 20 minutes.
While the soup cooks, steam the asparagus heads. Place a steamer basket in a pot with an inch of water in the bottom. Bring to a boil. Place the tops in the basket and cover the pot. Cook for 1 minute. Remove the asparagus tops and immediately place in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.
Purée the soup using an immersion blender or a conventional blender. Return the soup to the pot and stir in the cream, pepper, salt (to taste), and two teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Place back on the heat and bring just to a boil. Ladle the soup into bowls and top each serving with a few asparagus tops and a pinch of lemon zest.
White Bean Pilaf
1 1/2 cup white beans (Great Northern), rinsed and soaked overnight
3 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dry thyme
2 TBSP butter
salt and black pepper
a handful of chopped parsley
Rinse and soak the beans overnight. Drain and rinse again. Place in a large pot and cover with 3 1/2 cups water. Add the bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Cover with the lid slightly ajar. Simmer over low heat for 1 hour, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Add black pepper and salt, to taste. When the beans are done, remove the bay leaf. Reserve the beans in their cooking liquid. These can be prepared a day in advance.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and cook the onion and celery until soft. Add the garlic and cook a minute longer. Drain the beans and reserve the cooking liquid. Add the beans to the vegetables along with half a cup of the cooking liquid. Stir in the thyme. Cover and simmer for 5 – 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and parsley. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust if necessary.
To serve, place the beans on a platter. Slice the lamb and arrange on top of the beans.
Roasted Leg of Lamb
1 (3 lb) boneless half leg of lamb (for a whole leg, double this recipe)
3 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
2 TBSP Dijon mustard
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Preheat the oven to 325 F (160 C). Mix together the Dijon mustard, olive oil, balsamic, rosemary, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp black pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes. Set aside.
If your lamb comes tied, un-tie it and spread it out. Sprinkle the lamb inside and out with salt and pepper. Cut several small slits in the lamb and slide a sliver of garlic into each one. Spread half of the Dijon mixture on the inside of the lamb. Roll the lamb back into it’s original shape and tie with kitchen twine. Spread the remaining mustard mixture on the outside of the lamb. Place, fat side up, in a roasting pan that is just big enough to hold the lamb. Let the lamb sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before roasting in the preheated oven for one hour 20 minutes (for medium-rare) to one hour 40 minutes (for medium-well). Allow the lamb to rest, covered with aluminum foil for 20 minutes before carving.
Slice the lamb and place on a bed of white beans. Drizzle the pan drippings over top and serve.
for the cake:
2 3/4 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
1 1/2 cups sugar
12 TBSP (1.5 sticks) butter
1 1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
for the icing:
8 oz. cream cheese, room temp.
8 TBSP (1 stick) butter, room temp.
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 TBSP lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups fresh blueberries, washed
mint sprigs, to garnish
To prepare the cakes, preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Cut two circles of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of each pan. Butter the pans and the parchment paper and dust with flour. Set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Mix in the lemon zest and set aside.
Mix the milk and vanilla and set aside.
In a large bowl beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Beat in half the flour mixture, then half the milk. Repeat with the remaining flour and the remaining milk. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.
Bake 25 – 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into one of the cakes comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before frosting.
To prepare the frosting: Beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Slowly beat in the confectioner’s sugar, half a cup at a time. Add the lemon juice, zest and vanilla and beat until smooth.
Level the cakes. Spread a thin layer of icing on the top of one of the cakes. Place a layer of blueberries on the icing and press lightly. Spread a little more icing on top of the blueberries, to hold the cakes in place. Top with the second cake. Spread another thin layer of icing on top of the cake, just enough to hold another layer of blueberries in place. Use the remaining icing to fill in the space between the two cakes and to spread a thin layer on the outside of the cake – you want an semi-naked cake look. Arrange the remaining blueberries in concentric circles completely covering the top of the cake. Refrigerate until ready to serve and garnish with a few sprigs of mint.