Easter is a harbinger of warmer days and fresh vegetables. So on your holiday brunch table, why not offer a few dishes that feature the first gems of the spring harvest?
I'm pretty crazy about asparagus this time of year, even when those first delicate spears come from growers in California instead of from local farmers (in southwestern Pennsylvania, the harvest season runs from April through early June).
Low in calories and sodium, asparagus is a terrific source of vitamins K, A, the Bs and C, and it's also is a good way to work fiber into your diet. But the best part is asparagus' versatility. Boiled, steamed or simply eaten raw, the stalks work their magic in everything from soups and salads to casseroles, egg dishes, stir-fries and side dishes.
Some people like fat, thick spears of asparagus, which are just as tender and tasty as the spindly stuff, but not me: I prefer the very young, skinny spears because they don't have to be peeled, cook in a flash and are a bit less fibrous.
Spinach is another sure winner.
After a long and chilly winter of no fresh homegrown veggies, who can resist the crinkly, tender green, which soon will arrive in local markets in fat bunches held together with purple rubber bands. A favorite for spring salads (try it with strawberries, toasted almonds and goat cheese) it also brightens up soup, stands in for lettuce on sandwiches or is wonderful simply sauteed with a little garlic, olive oil and fresh lemon zest.
Below we offer two recipes from a terrific new cookbook by PBS chef Clodagh McKenna -- Ireland's answer to Rachael Ray -- that feature asparagus and spinach in starring roles. Both are simple to make and will add color and variety to your Easter table. They're not Irish per se (she created her recipe for Italian Easter Baked Spinach and Rice while living in Turin in northern Italy), but they do capture the country's spring flavors.
Asparagus, Mint and Ricotta Tartlets
This side-dish tart is wonderfully rich but at the same time light, with a bright burst of lemon flavor. Puff pastry makes it a snap to prepare. These are best right out of the oven (careful you don't burn your tongue!) but also can be served at room temperature. With a salad and bread, the tarts would make a wonderful light supper.
Choose bright-green asparagus with tight, compact tips. Thicker stalks are just as delicious as the thin stuff, but you may want to blanche it in boiling water for a few minutes, depending on the thickness, so it cooks thoroughly.
1 sheet all-butter puff pastry, thawed
8 ounces ricotta
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 asparagus spears, bottoms snapped off
Olive oil, for brushing
Mint leaves for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place puff pastry dough on cutting board. Roll out slightly, then cut out 8 rectangles, each 5-by-21/2 inches, from the pastry sheet and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Score a 1/2-inch border on each rectangle.
Put ricotta, parmesan, lemon rind, salt and pepper into a bowl and stir to combine. Spoon the mixture on to the pastry. Cut asparagus spears in half. Top each tart with 4 asparagus halves. Brush the pastry borders with oil and bake in the oven for 15 to 18 minutes or until the pastry is puffed and golden. (Mine took about 20 minutes.)
Serve with a couple of mint leaves on top. (I also added a few thin slivers of parmesan cheese.)
Makes 8 tarts.
-- Adapted from "Clodagh's Kitchen Diaries: Delicious Recipes Throughout the Year" by Clodagh McKenna (Kyle, March 10, 2013, $27.95)
Italian Easter Baked Spinach and Rice
Allow this casserole to sit for a few minutes after baking before slicing into wedges, or it may fall apart. I used chicken broth to cook the rice, but if you're vegetarian, vegetable broth will work beautifully, too.
You can find arborio rice, an Italian short-grain rice, in most large grocery stores or specialty markets such as Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District. I used fresh bread crumbs.
21 ounces spinach
Olive oil, for frying
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 onion, finely chopped
8 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese, divided
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Butter for greasing pan
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare spinach by removing and discarding the stems and rinsing the leaves in cold water. Drain well. Heat a drop of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook until spinach is soft. Remove from pan and chop finely.
Cook rice according to package instructions until al dente, then drain well. Meanwhile, place pan used for spinach back over heat and add a drop of olive oil followed by onion and cook until soft. In a large bowl, mix together the spinach, onion, rice, 5 tablespoons parmesan and the eggs. Season with salt and pepper.
Grease a medium round cake pan with butter and press the rice and spinach mixture into the pan. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top followed by the remaining parmesan. Cook in oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden. Serves 10.
-- "Clodagh's Kitchen Diaries: Delicious Recipes Throughout the Year" by Clodagh McKenna (Kyle, March 10, 2013, $27.95)
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.