What’s Easter without a haunch of ham or leg of lamb? (For those born since Watergate, “haunch” is a cool old term for “large end of animal meat with a bone in it.”)
Well, it’s still Easter, with or without meat. Or even eggs. Here’s a simple Easter menu inspired by Mediterranean cooking of solely vegetables (with a sprinkling of sheep’s milk cheese).
The centerpiece is pasta alla Norma, yet again a Sicilian eggplant-centric preparation such as caponata or what we call “eggplant parm,” but they refer to simply as “parmigiana.” I prefer to roast, rather than fry, my chunks of eggplant. Doing so minimizes their oil saturation and also renders them into little pillows of pudding.
Also, the choice of pasta shape is important. Tubular shapes allow the chunky pieces of the thick sauce to secret themselves inside the pasta. Delicious.
No other vegetable signals Spring so much as asparagus, here also roasted, but additionally brightened with ample curlicues of lemon rind, some roasted alongside into sweetness, others zesty and fresh.
Finally, an all-celery salad. When I was growing up and saw “pascal” (sometimes Pascal or Paschal) celery in the produce section, I thought, understandably, that the adjective had something to do with Easter, or even Passover. Our English adjective for Easter, “Paschal” comes by way of Aramaic and Greek (pascha), the Hebrew (pesach) and the ecclesiastical Latin (paschalis)—all referring either to Passover or Easter.
When those languages, in their ancient times, were churning out the words that we would later inherit as ours, “celery” and “parsley” were often confused, sometimes being called by the same name. (It’s easy to see why when you look at the leaves of each—they look like identical twins—especially flat-leaf or “Italian” parsley. Indeed, the plants are botanically related).
However—and especially for Coloradans— so-called “Pascal” celery has nothing at all to do with Easter or Passover.
An Oct. 17, 1938, article in The Denver Post relates how tenderizing or even “sweetening” celery came about in our state during the late 1800s—and furthermore quickly became nationally extremely popular.
Celery is natively bitter and tough-fibered. An Italian immigrant to and gardener in Colorado, with the last name of Pascal (no first name given), developed a way to wrap and trench celery by burying the plant in mounds of soil just up to the leaves. This further blanched the celery as it was deprived of light. These two methods brought about a tenderness in the celery that conventional methods of farming could not.
Pascal celery was extremely popular for Thanksgiving cooking (I remember my mother seeking it out) and so famous around the country that stalks were shipped to The White House near Christmastime. But growing Pascal celery fell out of favor hereabouts right around World War II. It is extremely labor-intensive and, well, so many men were away at war.
Furthermore, this history points out that Pascal celery had little to do with Easter or Passover because these celebrations take place in the spring when hothouse seedlings were just sporting their wee leaves of what would become, over the summer and into the fall, Pascal celery.
But, to honor a misconception (something sometimes good to do) and because celery figures so often in Jewish Passover seders, I give you a recipe that uses the celery plant, this time spelled “Paschal” celery. It is delicious.
This third vegetarian and Mediterranean-centric recipe uses the three main parts of the celery plant, a simple mix of close to equal parts of matchsticks of celery root, inner celery ribs, both celery and parsley leaves, all dressed in olive oil, light vinegars and golden raisins.
At Passover seders, either celery or parsley were (and are) used as both a sign of spring and new life, as well as being dipped into the brine or vinegar that itself symbolizes the tears of the Jews fleeing Pharoah.
Pasta alla Norma
Recipe by Bill St. John. Legend has it that this much-favored Sicilian vegetarian pasta preparation is named after Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma.” Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, in November 1801. Sicilians treat eggplant as a ready substitute for meat or fish: it is a hearty vegetable, holds up in cooking and is grown all over the island. Serves 3-4.
1 large or 2 medium purple eggplants, partially peeled and cut into 1-inch squares, 4-5 cups
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, separated
1 teaspoon dried Aleppo pepper flakes (or 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon Mexican-style red pepper flakes, to taste)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4-5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped (about 2 cups raw) or the equivalent in good quality canned tomatoes
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 to 3/4 pound medium-sized, short tubular dried pasta (ziti, pennoni, mezzi rigatoni, paccheri, ditali or the like)
A wedge of ricotta salata
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or chiffonade of basil, for garnish
Heat the oven to 400 degrees and ready a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. In a large bowl, add the pepper flakes, black pepper and salt to the 2/3 cup olive oil and stir together. Add the eggplant cubes to the bowl and toss them to coat. Lay out the cubes onto the baking sheet in a single layer and place in the oven.
Roast the eggplant for 40 minutes, turning the pieces over 1-2 times while cooking to even out their browning.
Meanwhile, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over a medium-high flame and add the garlic slices, letting them cook just until sizzling. Add the tomatoes and cook them down, 6-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomato paste, smashing everything and making a thick sauce. If the eggplant has yet to finish roasting, set the sauce aside.
Set a large pot of water to boiling and cook the pasta until just al dente, draining it well and reserving 1-2 ladlefuls of cooking water. To the tomato sauce, add the eggplant, stirring it in gently, adding splashes of pasta cooking water, if necessary, in order to thin the sauce to your liking. (The sauce should be thick but not jammy.)
Gently stir in the pasta and serve, garnished with gratings of ricotta salata and either or both of the green herbs.
Roasted Asparagus with Lemon
Recipe by Bill St. John. A side dish for 4-8.
1 pound asparagus spears, well washed and fibrous ends trimmed
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons aged balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
Rind from 2 wedges of lemon, pith and flesh cut away, pith pitched, flesh set aside and rind slivered
Fresh lemon zest, in slivers, not grated, for garnish
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl or baking dish, mix together the olive oil, vinegar, seasonings and lemon rind slivers and, in the mix, gently toss the asparagus spears to coat.
On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, lay out the spears in one layer, using a spatula to get all the seasonings and lemon slivers onto the baking sheet. Roast for 7-9 minutes (depending on the spears’ thicknesses), shaking the sheet once midway, until the asparagus is slightly browned but also still slightly crisp.
When done, remove the baking sheet away from the heat and squeeze the juice from the reserved lemon flesh onto the asparagus spears. Serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with fresh lemon zest slivers.
Paschal Celery Root, Celery Heart and Celery Leaf Salad
Adapted from finecooking.com, by Diane Morgan; prepared by Bill St. John; serves 4.
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
1/3 cup golden raisins
For the salad:
2/3 cup celery root, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2/3 cup heart of celery (lightest green only), thinly sliced on the bias
1/2 cup lightly packed celery leaves
1/4 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
Make the dressing by whisking or mixing together all its ingredients in a small bowl, keeping back the raisins for a moment. When everything is well blended, add the raisins and let them steep in the dressing for at least 15 minutes.
To construct the salad, in a large bowl toss together the celery parts and the parsley leaves. Whisk the dressing one final time and add enough of it to coat the greens well but not overly so (you may not need all the dressing). Let the salad sit for 5-10 minutes to blend the flavors, then serve.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]