Easter, with all of its awkwardness (it's not Christmas), was always a holiday where the food around the table spoke about the end of winter, the arrival of tasty dishes inspired by the spring, and the culinary traditions of my family. Growing up in an Italian-American family on Staten Island, the Easter table was always a mishmash of dishes that came to America on the boat, along with other (more recognizable) pickings.
And so, I decided to dissect the outer borough Easter with a few snapshots of the essentials.
Bocconcini (small balls of fresh mozzarella) marinated in parsley, dried chili, and extra virgin olive oil get eaten up with warm pane siciliano. Pepperoni is wrapped in Pillsbury Crescents dough, baked, and avoided by me. And finally, button mushroom caps stuffed with breadcrumb and Parmigiano usually disappear instantly. This all leads in to the first course of manicotti — an American stuffed pasta invention similar to cannelloni. It's a strange start, but will probably never be changed.
Easter and ham — a pairing as essential as sunlight in the morning, or air in the lungs. (OK, maybe not as indispensable.) My mother buys the ham days ahead, and leaves it waiting for my grandmother's arrival on Easter. The first thing my grandmother does when she walks through the door is pierce the ham with an overload cloves, Maraschino cherries, and pineapple rings. Then the entire thing gets a huge bath in Dole pineapple juice. It's still 1950, apparently.
Here is where the Old World aspect enters the scene. Jesus is the lamb of God (or something like that). I actually only care about this, the real lamb — the chops that have been marinating in rosemary, parsley, lemon peel, crushed garlic, and olive oil. The grill gets opened for the first time since last summer and in those sacrificial beings go.
Because breadcrumbs must never be absent from southern Italian cooking, there's usually a big plate of breaded and baked broccoli. More mushrooms are usually found — sautéed with chili and reduced to something beautiful and savory. There's also roasted asparagus (it's spring after all), potatoes with thyme and rosemary, and a sweet potato pie covered in marshmallows.
Here's an important part of the meal. I recently started studying wine at the International Wine Center, through a program ran by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. I've really been geeking out about grapes, vines, and all of that delicious stuff. I decided to take a rather classic route with my bottle choice: a 2009 red Bordeaux would sip perfectly with the lamb.
This is a relatively equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a tiny bit of Cabernet Franc added for some vegetal notes. The Château Larrivet Haut-Brion in the Pessac-Léognan appellation has been producing excellent wines for decades, and 2009 was a spectacular year overall for the Bordeaux region. This drank dry, with a palate full of graphite, charcoal, black cherry, plum, and dried herbs. It probably could have slept a bit more, but hey, it was still pretty damn good.
Every year I wait for one thing: pastiera di grano, or "wheat pie." It's only one of the most delicate desserts ever, and one of the few foods I grew up knowing that continues to give me pure nostalgia. And I love nostalgia.
Essentially it's a pie stuffed with a mixture of sweetened ricotta, wheat berries, and candied citron. My grandmother learned the recipe from her mother, who was from Sicily, although the pie has its origins in Campania. Each year, the first bite is like a little reunion in my mouth. The subtle sweetness, the chewy pieces of grain, and the little bursts of candied citrus peel come together to make for a light end to a large meal.
And what washes it all down? A dessert table essential — espresso with a few drops of sambuca.
And there it is — spring said hello.