On Easter, Symbolism And the Exuberance of Spring

Adapted from an article published in The New York Times: April 4, 2007

Throughout rural Italy, the first thing many families eat on Easter morning is a giant frittata made from uova benedetta, eggs blessed on the day before Easter, when the village priest goes around giving each farmhouse a benediction.

One Easter, on a farm outside the old Samnite town of Venafro in Molise, I shared a 40-egg frittata made by the farmer’s wife. It wasn’t the best frittata I ever had, but it surely was the holiest.

As the dull winter landscape of the Mediterranean breaks into fresh green life, the exuberance of holiday feasting neatly matches the exuberance of nature. The magic and mystery of Easter and Passover are firmly grounded in the realities of a Mediterranean springtime. The artichokes, asparagus, young fava beans and fresh green peas on the Easter table reflect that, as do the eggs that have piled up, uneaten throughout Lent, in the family larder.

Even for those who no longer observe the traditional 40-day fast, Holy Week brings a palpable sense of anticipation. This Sunday, unusually, Western and Orthodox Easter celebrations fall on the same day, while Passover is observed throughout Holy Week and Easter weekend.

If Passover celebrates the resurrection of a people from the death of slavery in Egypt, Easter affirms the resurrection of individual souls.

But both reflect ancient beliefs, lodged deep in the Mediterranean psyche, about the resurrection of the natural world after winter’s death. (It is one reason they are movable feasts set by an agricultural calendar following the moon and the solstice rather than by a man-made date.) Scratch the surface of a Greek or Italian Easter menu and you will find foods whose close ties to springtime celebrations date back before Christianity.

Take the ubiquitous egg, universal symbol of rebirth: Italian parents and grandparents outdo one another to find the largest and most expensive chocolate eggs, the most elaborately decorated, with the most costly ”sorprese,” little gifts concealed inside. (They used to be plastic baubles, but now, I am told, they might be a pair of gold earrings or even the keys to a new car.)

More prosaically, each region, each town, has its own distinctive bread, the staff of everyday life enriched with noble ingredients for the holiday. In the Tuscan village where I spend a part of each year it is a humble ciacia (CHA-cha, a contraction of focaccia), a brioche-like dough with chunks of pecorino cheese or pancetta liberally distributed through it. In other parts of Italy it may be a sweet dough with bits of chocolate or candied citrus peel, often with colored hard-boiled eggs embedded in the top.

The best-known Italian Easter bread is never, to my knowledge, made at home: la colomba, the dove, an elaborate confection, garnished with egg whites and almonds, in the shape of a bird with its wings spread wide, is in every supermarket, highway rest stop, bakery and fancy pastry shop throughout Italy. (Most Italian neighborhood shops in the United States have imported, commercially made colombe; for a more artisanal variety, look in Italian-style bakeries like Sullivan Street Bakery, 533 West 47th Street, (212) 265-5580.)

The dove, of course, confirmed Noah’s covenant with the Lord. It is also the bird of peace for Christians. Or is it perhaps symbolic of Aphrodite, whose lover Adonis also died and was restored to new life? Like so much that has to do with Easter, the answer may well be all of the above.

In countless southern Italian towns, sweet fragrances of vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossoms mixed with rich, buttery ricotta drift from kitchen windows open to the spring breezes. Home cooks and chefs simmer peeled wheat in milk, sugar and aromatics, the first step in the lengthy preparations for pastiera di grano, the iconic Easter sweet.

Pastiera di grano — literally grain pie — also grew out of an excess of eggs along with ricotta made from the milk of newly freshened ewes. But it harks directly back to propitiatory offerings made in ancient, and not so ancient, times to insure a safe harvest. Traditionally the grano, or wheat, comes from an antique strain of durum wheat that must be peeled, like pearled barley, of an indigestible outer pellicle.

Peeled wheat, called grano pestato or grano pellato, and sometimes just grano per pastiera, is often available in Italian specialty shops, like Di Palo Fine Foods, 200 Grand Street (Mott Street), (212) 226-1033. Modern cooks unable to find proper grano can also substitute farro, another durum wheat variety that is also peeled. (A recipe for the pie can be found at nytimes.com/dining.)

In Greece and some parts of Italy, women still set bowls of wheat or lentils to sprout in darkness, then bring them into the light, often right into church, on the Thursday before Easter. The symbolism is obvious, but it is less well known that this tradition goes directly back to what in ancient Greece were called gardens of Adonis, bowls of wheat grains sprouted by women who followed the cult of Aphrodite’s dead lover.

The sumptuous profusions of Easter lasagnas are like proclamations of abundance after the dearth of the Lenten fast. Called simply pasta al forno, oven-baked pasta, in central Italy, in the south it is known as lasagna ripiena, stuffed lasagna, and in dialect sagne chine (ZAHN-yeh KEE-neh). In my part of eastern Tuscany my neighbors bake their Easter pasta in the outside bread oven, built into the house wall, and the oven’s smoky wood fire lends fragrance and flavor to the dish.

Thickly layered with meats and sausages and strewn with tiny meatballs, grated and sliced cheeses, wild spring vegetables (pencil-thin asparagus and hop shoots) and garden-grown ones (artichokes and peas), these sumptuous constructions are like gastronomic fortresses against the restraint of the everyday.

Above all, though, Easter in the Mediterranean is unimaginable without lamb at the center of the feast. Often spit-roasted or braised in a wood-fired oven, surrounded by many of those seasonal first fruits, lamb, in a sense, is what Easter is all about, the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God, the sacrificial offering of the first-born in the shepherd’s flock, a practice as old as the first shepherd, Abel, whose offering was more pleasing to the Lord than Cain’s tiresome vegetables.

In Greece, kokoretsi, the lamb’s tender innards — liver, heart and kidneys — are threaded on spits and grilled over an open fire, just as Homeric heroes did with sacrificial offerings, and on Easter Eve they are turned into the magnificent soup called mageiritsa that finally breaks the Lenten fast. Flavored with dill or wild fennel greens, thickened with avgolemono, eggs beaten with fresh lemon juice, this is a soup to wake the dead and, alas, quite impossible to prepare in the United States, where there is almost no access to baby lamb, let alone to its innards or to wild fennel greens.

But a southern Italian lamb dish made with chunks of lamb shoulder has a similar richness. A fricasse of lamb with cheese and eggs, garnished with fresh peas or fava beans, its sauce thickened with eggs and flavored with lemon, is traditionally made for Easter Monday. Known as Pasquetta, or Little Easter, it’s another example of Italian exuberance, an official national holiday when city families decamp to the countryside to lunch al fresco on leftovers of the Sunday feast, happily extending the celebrations of Easter just a little further into the everyday world.

Neapolitan Easter Fricassee of Lamb
Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 pounds boned lamb shoulder or leg, in about 2-inch pieces, rinsed and well dried
4 medium onions, halved and very thinly sliced
1 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed
3 large eggs
1 cup grated caciocavallo, Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon slices or quarters, for garnish.

1. Place deep, wide casserole over medium-high heat, and add oil. Brown lamb in batches, transferring to shallow bowl when done. Stir onions into pan, adding juices from bowl. Cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook until onions almost melt, turning golden but not brown, 30 minutes to 1 hour. Add a little water if onions begin to brown.
2. Add lamb and 1/2 cup of wine. Cook uncovered over very low heat until wine is nearly evaporated, about 45 minutes. Add remaining wine, peas, and 1/2 cup of water. Continue cooking uncovered over low heat until peas are very tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer lamb, onions and peas to a warm serving platter, and set aside in a warm place.
3. Place casserole over very low heat so juices barely simmer. Whisk eggs in a bowl and add cheese. Whisk ladles of hot pan juices into eggs until mixture is quite warm, then pour into casserole, whisking continually. Whisk over very low heat until thick enough to coat a spoon. Do not boil or eggs will curdle; if sauce nears a boil, remove from heat and whisk to cool as rapidly as possible.
4. Remove sauce from heat and whisk in parsley and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over lamb and peas, garnish with lemon slices, and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

Rich Baked Easter Pasta (Sagne Chine)
Time: 2 hours

1 1/2 lemons
3 large artichokes
1/2 pound fresh pork sausage (hot or sweet or a mix), skins removed
1 1/2 cups freshly grated aged pecorino, caciocavallo, or Parmesan cheese
4 large eggs, 1 raw and 3 hard-boiled, peeled and sliced into wedges
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs, or as needed
1/2 cup flour, or as needed
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus additional as needed
1/2 pound lean pork, diced small
2 cups plain tomato sauce
1/4 cup finely minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or hot pepper flakes to taste
2 celery stalks, including leaves, minced
1 medium yellow onion, minced
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms (wild, oyster or shiitake), cleaned and sliced
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
1 pound fresh or dried lasagna
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced.

1. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon into bowl of water, and set aside. Cut top third off each artichoke, and pull off all the tough outer leaves. Trim stem, halve artichoke, and scrape out thorny center in each half. Rub cut surfaces with lemon half and drop artichokes into bowl of lemon water. Reserve lemon half.
2. Combine sausage, 1/2 cup grated cheese, raw egg and plenty of pepper in bowl. Mix very well and shape into 20 to 24 meatballs about11/2 inches in diameter. If mixture is too soft, mix in up to 1/2 cup bread crumbs.
3. Spread flour on plate and lightly coat meatballs. Place small saucepan over medium heat and heat 3/4 cup of oil. Brown meatballs in batches on all sides, and drain on paper towels. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of oil. Return to medium heat and add pork. Brown on all sides, remove, and set aside.
4. Heat tomato sauce in small saucepan until simmering. Stir in basil and cayenne pepper to taste. Set aside and keep warm. In clean skillet, combine celery, onion and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Place over medium-low heat and saut?ntil very soft. Stir in mushrooms and parsley. Drain artichoke halves and cut each into 4 to 6 pieces. Add to pan with bay leaves and 1/4 cup water; mix well. Cover and simmer until artichokes are soft, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in peas and juice of lemon half.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rub olive oil on bottom and sides of a 10-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Bring 6 quarts of lightly salted water to a rolling boil. Cut fresh lasagna into strips that will fit into three layers in the dish, and parboil 11/2 minutes to soften but not fully cook. If using dried lasagna, cook about 4 minutes to soften but not cook. Drain on kitchen towels.
6. Line bottom of the baking dish with lasagna. Spread one-third of sauce over pasta, then spread it with half the meatballs, half the pork, half the vegetables and half the eggs. On top distribute a third of mozzarella slices and a third of remaining grated cheese. Cover with another layer of lasagna and half of remaining sauce. Spread with remaining meatballs, pork, vegetables and eggs. On top distribute half of remaining mozzarella and half of remaining grated cheese.
7. Cover with a final layer of lasagna and remaining sauce. Distribute remaining mozzarella and remaining grated cheese. Drizzle with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake until top is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes, then serve.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.


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