My memories of Easter as a little girl growing up in New Zealand involve camping, trout fishing and Easter egg hunts. To me, Easter meant a short break from school and an active home life, usually a long weekend road trip with family, and hot cross buns, chocolate and marshmallow eggs galore.
In Italy, with its Roman Catholic roots and abundance of churches, Pasqua (Easter) traditions include Mass and, after that, sharing a great meal at table—a serious activity that Italians have excelled at for centuries. Of course, Italian children wait eagerly for the moment when they are allowed to break open their chocolate Easter eggs (which are, by the way, the biggest I’ve seen anywhere in the world) to find out what treat or toy lies inside. But then it is time to go to table. As important as Christmas but different, pasqua is often a time to share with friends at the table, rather than close family. Florence, therefore, is a good place to be for Easter.
The feast starts with uova benedette, the boiled eggs blessed by the priest at Saturday’s church service. Take your eggs—real eggs from the hen, raw or boiled, colorfully painted or not—to the church on Sabato Santo, the Saturday before Easter Sunday, to be blessed. Some people kiss their eggs before peeling and eating them; others kiss, peel, and cut the eggs and dip the pieces in salt. Whatever method you choose, the blessed egg is the first part of the pasqua feast.
In Italy, lamb, symbolizing the sacrificial lamb, is traditionally part of the Easter menu, often a roast shoulder or leg. This year, however, I am making a rack of lamb, served with spring peas and pancetta and roasted potatoes. If you have made pancetta from my recipe in issue TF 178, it will now be ready to add to the peas on the Tuscan Easter menu I offer here.
Easter rack of lamb, rosemary potatoes, spring peas with pancetta
2 whole racks of lamb, 8 or 9 bones each, chined (bones cleaned back to the eye of the loin)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
1.5 kg potatoes
50ml olio di oliva extra vergine
Sprig of fresh rosemary
300g fresh spring peas, shelled (about 700g unshelled)
50g pancetta (purchased or homemade, see TF 178) sliced into thin strips
Wash and peel the potatoes, then chop into large chunks. Dry well and toss in a large bowl with the extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Place in a hot oven with a sprig of fresh rosemary at 200 degrees Celsius for 20–30 minutes until soft in the centre and browned on the outside. You will need to turn them once or twice while roasting. Once they are done you can leave them to rest in a warm place (such as above the oven).
To end up with 300g of fresh spring peas, you will need to buy at least 700g of fresh un-hulled peas. Now it’s time to get down and get dirty shelling peas. If you buy them from your local market, shelling your own peas is the perfect pastime leading up to Easter lunch. Once the peas are shelled, slice three or four rashers off your newly cured pancetta before slicing them into small chunks. Heat up a heavy-based pan such as a non-stick frying pan, and without adding fat, throw in the small chunks. Cook for three to five minutes until they begin to release their fat and start to brown. Add the fresh raw peas followed by a cup of water and a bit of salt and pepper. Leave to simmer about five minutes, then taste to see if they are as tender as they should be. They are, after all, the first of the spring peas, and you want them be tender and tasty.
Count the bones on each rack of lamb and hope to have eight or nine per rack: if you have nine, cut the smallest bone out of the rack and discard or use for stock. Proceed by cutting each rack in half right down the middle, then rub the meat on each rack with the garlic and set aside. Heat up a heavy-based pan, season each rack with salt and pepper, rub in extra virgin olive oil, and sear until golden brown on all sides in the hot pan. Remove from the heat and finish cooking in a hot oven, around 200 degrees Celsius, for another five minutes. To serve, leave the lamb racks to rest, then slice them open over each bone, serve with the potatoes and spring peas and pancetta.
Try the Grifi IGT Toscana, which is 60 percent Sangiovese and 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a wine Avignonesi stopped making in 1996, and decided to produce again in 2010; the 2010 vintage will be released this spring, hopefully in time to accompany Easter lunch!