We have always looked forward to the celebration in the Spring. The astrological phenomenon of the Vernal Equinox and the holidays of Easter and Passover are all good reasons to gather with friends and family for a feast.
We celebrate the end of great deprivation, whether it be the dark, cold days of winter, our long Lenten fast, or (this year) the covid mandates. With the Covid regulations, that hope of a truly ‘normal’ celebration may not be possible, but we still can look forward to celebrating spring with food and camaraderie while staying safe. And, if we are vaccinated, it might even include a big hug. We celebrate better days ahead - the planting of gardens, the rebirth of the earth around us, and hopefully an end to many Covid regulations.
I can’t wait to celebrate with either ham, turkey, duck, or goose as the main course for this April party. I also like to cook some interesting side dishes and I give you some of my favorite sides that add variety to any menu without overpowering the main entrée. I have checked the area supermarkets and find that all the following foods are readily available.
Leeks in Cream
Leeks are not used enough on American tables. They are a wonderful way to add flavor and subtle color to dishes without overpowering them. I like to use them on their own in this sinfully rich side dish – perfect for a springtime celebration. It is also a very simple recipe to make but start it early in the day because it has to cook for quite a while.
- 6-8 leeks – cleaned and cut in half down the middle
- 1 pint of heavy cream
- Pinch of nutmeg
- Salt and pepper to taste
Butter a baking dish and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. If you have something else cooking in there the leeks will not mind cooking at a higher or lower temperature.
Trim the leeks top and bottom (they will have to fit lengthwise in your baking dish) and slice each one lengthwise into two pieces. Wash them under running water making sure not to let them fall apart. Lay into a buttered baking pan, placing them in opposite directions to fit into the dish. Pour the cream, mixed with the nutmeg, over the top until it just covers the leeks. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on top.
Place in the oven, uncovered, for about an hour pushing down the leeks into the cream with the back of a spoon every 15 minutes. It usually takes at least an hour to cook the leeks. The cream will reduce a bit and that is fine – they should not be watery. Don’t let it dry out completely though – add a little more cream if this happens. If possible, turn the oven up to 400 at the end and cook for another 15 minutes if they are not browned on the top. It will brown the cream. The cooking time of leeks can differ – just make sure they are done when you take them out. They should be very soft.
You can’t even imagine how good these are!
Fresh String Bean Casserole
This is a fresh version of the classic string bean casserole from my childhood that consisted of opening cans of frenched string beans, mushroom soup, and french-fried onion rings. When you make this recipe, you will find out what a great thing ‘cooking from scratch’ is all about.
- 10 cups of fresh string beans – frenched (see instructions below)
- ½ lb. softened butter (you may not need it all)
- 5 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup half & half
- 1cup strong chicken stock
- 2 cups sliced button mushrooms
- 2 onions – thinly sliced
- 1-2 cups fresh breadcrumbs with salt and pepper added
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the beans:
Tip and tail the string beans, then french them by splitting each one in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. This sounds like a hardship, but it goes quite fast. Blanch the beans for about 5 minutes in boiling water till they just start to soften. Rinse in cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
Prepare the onion topping:
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and sauté the onions for a few minutes. Add the breadcrumbs to the onions and cook for a few more minutes. I like to use breadcrumbs made from English muffins. You can make them in a food processor or a blender. Set the onion and crumb mix to the side.
Prepare the mushroom sauce:
In the same frying pan cook the sliced mushrooms in 2-3 tablespoons of butter until browned. Remove the mushrooms and set them aside.
Melt 4-5 tablespoons butter in the same pan and add the flour to form a roux. Cook the roux for a minute or two. Add the half & half and chicken stock to the roux and cook until thickened. If it is too thick add more liquid – if too thin you will have to add more roux. It should be the consistency of warm condensed cream of mushroom soup. Set aside.
Put the casserole together:
Lay the string beans in a large gratin pan (a rectangular baking dish will do). Pour the mushroom and stock mix into the beans. It should just cover the beans. Cover the top with the breadcrumb and onion mix. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook in a 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbling.
Stuffed Spring Artichokes
No food reminds me more of a holiday feast than artichokes. I enjoy eating them – leaf by leaf - until I reach the prize of the heart at the bottom. What fun it is!
I usually cook them plain with a little olive oil and lemon on top but, they have added pizzazz when stuffed with flavored breadcrumbs. They can be used as an appetizer or a side dish.
- 6 medium to large artichokes
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 lemons – juiced
- Olive oil – have at least ¾ cup
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 bunch scallions - finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic – chopped
- fresh parsley – chopped
- 2 teaspoons capers
- 2 cups homemade breadcrumbs or panko
- ¾ cup fresh grated parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the artichokes:
Fill a large bowl with 4-5 cups of water and lemon juice.
Snap off the tough leaves around the bottom of the artichoke – a couple of layers.
Cut the long stems from the artichoke to leave a flat base.
Turn the artichoke on its side and cut an inch or so off the top.
With a pair of shears clip off the tips of the remaining leaves.
Fan the center of the artichoke out to separate the leaves a bit.
Put each prepared artichoke in the acidified water in the bowl. It will keep them from discoloring.
Take the artichokes out of the water after 10 minutes.
In a deep sauté pan or Dutch oven stand the artichokes upright. Add about an inch or two of water to the pan and bring to a boil on top of the stove. Reduce the heat and simmer the artichokes, covered for around 30 minutes. Take them out of the pan and turn them upside down to drain. Let them cool a little until you can handle them. Carefully spoon out the fuzzy, lighter center portion (make sure you don’t hit the heart) and discard.
Make the Breading
Heat the butter in a skillet and sauté the scallions and garlic until soft. Turn off the heat and add the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, parsley, capers, and cheese - mix well. You might need just a scant amount of olive oil to make the stuffing workable. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Set oven to 350 degrees.
Stuff the breading into the center of each artichoke and in between all the leaves. Place the stuffed artichokes upright in a baking dish rubbed with olive oil. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the top of each one. Carefully pour ¾ of an inch of water down the side of the pan. Keep the water on the bottom – do not pour on top of the artichokes.
Cook covered for 20 minutes and then uncovered for another 20 minutes.
Serve whole on a plate with a lemon wedge for an appetizer or cut in half for a side dish.