Easter is at the same time the most solemn and most joyous of all Christian holidays. As with many holidays, a feast for friends and family often follows the worship service. In the case of Easter, the table also honors spring foods. Lamb or ham usually take center stage but it is the side dishes that really personalize the celebration. Side dishes often reflect family history, tradition and/or ethnic heritage. Desserts are often similarly revealing, but for this article, I chose the side dishes, which I admit, are often my favorite part of the Easter meal.
Growing up, depending on the number of people coming, our main course was ham, lamb or both. Side dishes, including the "starters" remained constant. We began with a plate-sized ravioli and an antipasto dish of cheese, meats and olives. Side dishes included (sometimes all of them) spinach, green beans, potatoes (usually mashed) a lettuce salad, fried asparagus, (or steamed) and of course, my favorite—stuffed artichokes.
In response to a generalized question about side dishes and Easter traditions, I received several replies. I learned that a soup is a favorite in many families. John Amato, a New Jersey Sicilian- American , who runs the FB page "Buona Pasqua - Easter Italian Recipes", introduced me to a Sicilian Easter tradition of a meatball soup. Www.Academiabarilla.com gave me permission to share their recipe (see below).
Lucia Robinson, an Indiana born writer who lives in Wilmington, said she likes to start her Easter meal with a bowl of asparagus soup. Her mid-west tradition reminded me of the Austrian love of making all things possible from asparagus while it is in season locally, as it will be here at Easter. Lucia did not have a family recipe to offer although she shared this one, http://www.skinnytaste.com/cream-of-asparagus-soup-2/#DCWQ2Jwm8lljziUz.01 as close to what she recalls from her youth. There are many versions of asparagus soup available on the web—you can choose from ones that use real cream or soups that puree the vegetable into a faux cream state.
In addition to serving asparagus in soup, or fried as my family did many serve asparagus steamed or roasted as a side dish at the Easter feast. Kelly E. H. Graham, Murrells Inlet retirement expert and travel agent, says, "My roasted asparagus are tossed simply with olive oil and kosher salt and maybe finished with a little Parmesan once out of the oven." She adds, "I also make a simple arugula salad tossed with an apple cider vinaigrette, goat cheese, grape tomatoes, shaved sweet onions marinated in the vinaigrette, pine nuts and warm roasted asparagus chopped into bite size pieces. In addition, I often serve fresh fava beans, shelled, boiled and then sautéed with shallot , garlic and a little butter and olive oil. One other side dish is a somewhat newer creation as I LOVE seven layer salad - but it is always too much for just Michael (her husband) and me. So I have devised a deconstructed seven layer salad - all of the deliciousness tossed!" Graham shared her method for the seven-layer salad below.
Ricotta cheese often shows up at the Italian Easter table in both sides and desserts. Sweet ricotta pie is well known, as is ricotta filling in cannoli, but a hearty side dish that goes by many different names in Italy, pizza rustica, pizza chiana, and pizzagiana is not as well known unless your family made it. Anne Marie Lynch of Calabash shared her family's recipe with us.
Lynch says," My aunt Carmella (Lala) and my mother Anna (Tootsie) always got together at Easter time whether it was in my Aunt's Brooklyn Kitchen or in my mom's Queens kitchen to make three batches of this Pizzagiana (their words) We always loved having it because it mean--Italy, Easter, Family and tradition. "
In addition to going by many names, this savory pie has as many recipes as there are families that make it. Lynch notes that she has "about six different recipes" but says she finds the one below to be the closest to her mother and aunt's version, (people who, of course, cooked without a recipe). If you want to compare Lynch's version with another authentic one, try looking at the recipe Giada De Laurentis has put on the Food network website: www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/pizza-rustica-recipe.
Another tender green often appearing as an Easter side dish is spinach. Many simply put it in a salad or sauté it. Sue Riley of Carolina Shores, serves an Easter Spinach Pie. (recipe below)
Riley says, "This I make this for any occasion and also often add feta cheese and a pinch of hot pepper flakes before putting on the top crust."
No matter what you serve for main or side, it is the time around the table that is most significant. Graham adds, "For any meal, for me at least, I always encourage lingering about the table. We turn off or put away the phones and connect with one another. Time seems to be passing so quickly and the time we spend connecting face to face seems to be diminishing proportionately."
This is true at our Easter table as well, where, as at every meal, the most important dish served will definitely be some tasty bits of conversation.
Sciusceddu (Meatballs and Egg Soup
Pronounced: Ski-oo-shed-oo") reprinted, courtesy of AcademiaBarilla.com
Ingredients ( 4 servings)
4 cups meat broth
7 oz veal meat, chopped
2 oz breadcrumbs
3 ½ oz caciocavallo cheese, grated
3 ½ oz ricotta cheese
salt and pepper
Make a mixture of minced meat, one egg, breadcrumbs, half of the grated Caciocavallo cheese (or Parmesan), chopped parsley and a little water; then form meatballs about the size of a small egg.
In another bowl, beat the eggs with the Ricotta cheese previously sieved, the remaining Caciocavallo cheese and a dash of salt and pepper.
Bring the broth to the boil and dump the meatballs in.
Cook for about twenty minutes, and then add the egg mixture, stirring vigorously for a few moments. Remove from heat and serve the “sciusceddu” piping hot.
Kelly Graham's Deconstructed Seven Layer Salad
(The amount of ingredients varies by how many are being served. Have at least one egg or one-half hard-boiled egg per person and build the amounts on the plate to your own taste.)
Finely diced celery, onions, hardboiled egg, bacon - optional) and spring peas, cheddar or Parmesan, and finely chopped romaine tossed with mayonnaise and freshly cracked pepper. Lay it all out on a long plate and serve.
Sue Riley's Spinach Pie
1 Pkg. fresh Spinach or 2- 10oz. pkg. frozen Spinach
1 Pizza Crust in Dairy case
2 or 3 cloves garlic
¼ cup raisins (if you wish)
¼ cup olive oil
Brown garlic in olive oil, add fresh spinach (or thoroughly thawed and drained dry frozen spinach) and cook until wilted. Add salt & pepper to taste or a pinch of red pepper. Lift spinach with fork, collecting all the garlic & none of the liquid & put in a dish. Add raisins if desired. Use a 10 in. pie plate & spray with olive oil. Cut pizza crust in half and press half on bottom of pie plate and up sides. Add the cooked spinach and top with remaining half crust covering the spinach. Bake in pre-heated 410-degree oven for about 13 minutes or until top is browned.
Note from Sue: This I make for a side dish for any occasion-- I also add feta cheese and a pinch of hot pepper flakes before adding the top crust
Anne Marie Lynch's Pizzagiana
(with her notes on how she has changed it and on how others often make it)
5 cups of flour
5 teaspoons of baking powder
2 full tablespoons of Crisco
Add warm water to form dough
Roll out top and bottom layer.
Bottom layer goes all the way up
the sides to pinch with top layer after filling is added.
14 eggs beaten
Add about 1/4 cup grated cheese (Locatelli Romano)
Hard boil 12 eggs and cut in slices (Lynch notes, I prefer taking out the hard boiled eggs and adding 1 pound to 1 1/2 pound ricotta but that her family did not use ricotta)
1 1/2 pounds of Genoa salami cut as one piece round (cut into 1/4 inch thick slices then julienne in strips about 1 inch long. (NOTE: Lynch says, I do not use all salami, I substitute , ½ pound of prosciutto, ¼ pound of Italian bacon, ½ pound of Genoa salami, ¼ pound of mortadella )
1 beaten egg for top of crust
½ pound mozzarella
After you roll out the bottom layer, make sure to bring dough up the sides of at least a
9 X 13 X 2 rectangular pan. Pour beaten eggs in and layer sliced hard boil eggs and salami over the beaten eggs mixture. Place the top dough on and roll sides with top dough all along the edges. Beat 1 egg and brush on top crust and border.
Cook until the crust on top is golden brown. (usual baking time, 375 degrees for one hour)