One of the loveliest possible ways to while away a perfect spring afternoon is at a long, lazy luncheon. It's warm enough to move the table outside or at the very least to open all the windows and let the soft, fresh air into the dining room. And somehow the bright new flavors of spring's produce just seem lovelier at luncheon than at any other time of the day.
There's simply no better way to entertain a few close friends or mark a special family milestone than to spend a warm afternoon lounging around a beautifully set table, lazily sipping iced tea or lemonade (or perhaps an icy-crisp white wine) and slowly indulging in all the season's bright, fresh flavors in a progression of small courses.
If only work didn't get in the way.
Actually, there are still places in the world where it's not allowed to; where nothing, in fact, is allowed get in the way of the leisurely enjoyment of the midday meal. Shops close, factories stop, offices and bank lobbies empty, and everyone goes home.
It wasn't so long ago that Savannah happened to be just such a place. But unhappily, despite everything we've done to keep change at bay around here, the world at large insists on evolving, and even Savannah has had to cave in and keep up with it.
Still, the full-throttle march of progress doesn't have to keep us from taking the time to occasionally indulge in a luxurious spring luncheon, even if we have to confine it to the weekend.
The menu doesn't have to be - and, in fact, shouldn't be - complicated. Keep it simple and fresh and serve it in small courses so your guests will automatically slow down.
Trust me: If you go to the trouble of laying the table with your best, put fresh flowers at its center and dress yourself up in something nicer than baggy shorts and a T-shirt, the food will rise to the occasion.
Deviled Eggs with Capers and Chives
The perfect spring appetizer (not just for Easter but for any occasion), deviled eggs may seem plebeian and old-fashioned among the trend-conscious, but have you ever met anyone who didn't love them? Make them your own by substituting sweet or sour pickles or olives for the capers, by adding Â¼ cup of minced ham, smoked salmon or shrimp, and/or adding Â¼ cup of minced green onion or chives.
Makes 24, serving 8 to 12
12 large eggs at least 2 weeks old
Â½ cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1 generous tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and ground cayenne
Â¼ cup drained nonpareil capers, roughly chopped, plus 24 whole capers for garnish
About 2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or scallion tops
1. Using clean pushpin or needle, gently prick eggs at large end to help prevent shell from cracking. Put in heavy-bottomed pan that will hold eggs in one layer and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a full boil over medium-high heat.
2. Cover pan with a tight-fitting lid and remove it from heat. Let stand 10 minutes, drain and rinse eggs under cold running water. Lightly tap eggs on sides of pan to crack shells, cover with cold water, and let stand for another minute or two before peeling. Begin peeling at large end, where there's usually an air pocket that will help you get the shell loose.
3. Cut eggs in half lengthwise. Scoop yolks into ceramic or glass bowl. Set whites, cut side up, on deviled egg plate or platter. Roughly mash yolks with fork to texture of coarse meal; blend in mayonnaise, mustard, salt and cayenne to taste; beat until smooth. (Can be done in food processor: put yolks in work bowl fitted with steel blade; pulse until fine; add mayonnaise, mustard, salt and cayenne; process until smooth.) Fold in capers until evenly distributed.
4. Spoon or pipe filling (using pastry bag fitted with open star tip) into egg whites, mounding on top. Lightly dust with paprika. Garnish with paprika and single whole caper, and finish with chives or scallions. Can be made several hours ahead; loosely cover without touching tops of eggs and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Pasta with Asparagus and Ham
Asparagus and ham sauces for pasta usually are cream-based. Though I like them, I find they can be heavy and sometimes a little cloying. Here, the base is butter refreshed with shallots and scallions. Because the asparagus and ham are precooked, they're only heated through, so the sauce remains light and fresh. Use a good quality boiled ham that hasn't been smoked.
1 pound asparagus, preferably fat-stemmed
5 tablespoons European-style unsalted butter
Â¼ cup finely minced shallots or yellow onion
4 ounces cooked un-smoked ham sliced âs-inch thick and cut into Â¼-inch wide strips
Â½ cup thinly sliced scallion, white and green parts
Whole white pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
1 pound short pasta such as rotini or penne
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Wash and trim cut end of asparagus. Peel tough parts of stems (lower third) with vegetable peeler. Cut off tips and set aside; cut stems in 1-inch lengths.
2. Bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a 6-8 quart pot. Stir in small handful of salt and asparagus stem pieces. Cook until crisp tender, 1-2 minutes, and lift out with skimmer. Keep water simmering.
3. Put 2 tablespoons butter and shallots in large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Saute, tossing often, until softened but not colored, about 3 minutes. Add asparagus stems and prosciutto and toss until both are hot through, about 1 minute. Add tips and scallions and toss until tips are bright green, about 30 seconds. Season with white pepper and nutmeg. Turn off heat and add remaining butter, toss until melted, then taste and adjust for salt, pepper and nutmeg.
4. Stir pasta into boiling water in which asparagus was cooked and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (firm to bite but cooked through), using package directions as rough guide and beginning to check pasta 1 minute before suggested time. Reserve Â¼ cup cooking water and quickly drain pasta. Immediately toss with sauce, adding reserved pasta cooking water by spoonfuls if pasta seems too dry. Add Â½ cup cheese and toss, again adding reserved cooking water as needed. Serve at once with remaining cheese passed separately.
Spring Salad with Clementine Oranges and Fennel
10 ounces (about 6 lightly packed cups) mixed spring greens
1 medium fennel bulb
3 medium young spring carrots with leafy tops still attached
4-6 small young red radishes, with greens still attached
6 small, thin scallions
3-4 large sprigs flat leaf parsley
3 clementine oranges (tangerines)
Â½ cup dried cherries or cranberries (craisins)
Â¼ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Extra-virgin olive oil
1. Wash greens and spin dry with salad spinner or roll in large, clean kitchen towel and gently shake dry. Scrub fennel, carrots, radishes and scallions under cold running water. Drain well.
2. Cut stalks from fennel bulb, reserving a few fronds, cut in half, remove cone-shaped core and thinly slice. Trim away carrot fronds, reserving a handful of freshest looking, and cut them into âs-inch julienne (matchsticks) about 1 Â½ inches long. Trim tap root and greens from radishes and thinly slice. If greens are fresh and unblemished, pat dry and reserve. Wash and trim scallions and slice on diagonal into 1-inch lengths. Tear reserved fennel and carrot fronds and parsley into small pieces. Peel clementines, separate sections and peel membrane from sections.
3. Put greens, fennel, carrot, radish, reserved fennel and carrot fronds, radish greens and parsley into a large salad bowl. Gently toss to mix. Add clementine sections, dried cherries or craisins and pine nuts. Lightly sprinkle salad with salt and pepper and toss. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and gently toss until greens are glossy. Sprinkle lightly with vinegar and toss again. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, oil and vinegar as needed. Gently toss one last time, and serve immediately.
Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar
This is such a simple, straightforward dish that you'd think it would be impossible to mess it up. And yet, it's seldom done right. Here is how master Italian cook Marcella Hazan made it. The secret is not to let the berries sit in the vinegar.
There are only three ingredients here, so you need the best that you can get. The berries should be small and very ripe, and the balsamic vinegar the absolute best that your budget can afford, at the very least one that is 10-15 years old.
Generally served plain, you can take them over the top by topping them to unsweetened whipped cream or by spooning them over a scoop of the best quality vanilla ice cream.
2 pounds ripe strawberries, the smallest you can find
4-6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fine, aged balsamic vinegar from Modena
1. Wash, stem and core berries and cut in half or, if larger, thickly slice. Put in glass or ceramic bowl and sprinkle with sugar to taste. Let stand 1 hour, or until sugar is dissolved and a light syrup forms, but not so long that berries begin to wilt.
2. Just before serving, sprinkle vinegar over berries, gently toss until well mixed and serve immediately.
Strawberries in Bourbon
This is my own answer to the previous recipe. It has just one additional ingredient, so you should be equally as conscious of quality in those ingredients. Serve plain, topped with unsweetened whipped cream or spooned over vanilla ice cream.
2 pounds ripe strawberries, the smallest you can find
1 large lemon
4-6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1. Wash, stem and core berries and cut in half or, if larger, thickly slice. Put in glass or ceramic bowl. Remove zest from lemon with vegetable peeler and cut into thin strips or remove with small holes of bar zester. Add zest to berries, halve lemon and juice into berries.
2. Sprinkle with sugar to taste and gently toss. Let stand 30 minutes, or until sugar is almost dissolved and syrup is beginning to form. Thirty minutes before serving, sprinkle with bourbon, gently toss to mix and let stand 30 minutes.