The life of a chef has many advantages but routine is not one of them. Easter at home offers the perfect excuse for the sort of Sunday lunch I wish we had every week. A feast embedded in ritual and tradition.
Before I had family of my own, the Easter table was a gathering of friends and cousins. I made the hearty northern Italian food of Emilia-Romagna where my aunt Dina lives. In Parma, the first signs of spring mean earliest pea and bean pods and delicate young stalks of asparagus. Things are more of a gamble in the UK, but I’m always hopeful spring will come early and our farm box will contain some jewels nestled among the roots.
I have a weekend of celebration in mind: a Neapolitan mussel soup traditionally eaten on Maundy Thursday; the fish that would appear on Good Friday, given a twist in its punchy oily bath. You can’t have Easter without eggs, and I’ve ticked that box with an egg-rich, creamy pasta with fine strands of shaved asparagus that my wife devoured in an exhausted heap, clamouring for bread to mop up the spectacular sauce. That’s Saturday night sorted. Lamb cooked in pecorino is for Easter Sunday, with chunks of potato that make it feel almost like a hotpot. It’s a rich little number and we have a lamb’s lettuce salad alongside. Everyone has seconds.
Mussel soup with friselle (pictured above)
In Naples this soup is eaten on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with the addition of octopus.
Friselle, a type of very hard, biscuited bread roll that resembles an open bagel, are not hard to make if you have a little time and fancy a baking project, but it’s also not that hard to find them for sale in Italian shops or online . A baguette sliced and toasted in the oven is a perfect alternative.
If you make your own friselle, allow them to dry properly and the extra will keep until tomatoes are ripe in the summer. Dampen the hard bread with a little water, before topping them with the classic; fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil.
For the soup
garlic 2 cloves
dried red chilli 1, or chilli oil
parsley a small group
tinned plum tomatoes 300g, drained and diced
For the friselle (makes 10)
durum wheat semolina flour 250g
whole wheat flour 250g
dried yeast 1 tsp
To make the friselle, mix 50g of each of the flours with the yeast and 100ml of the water at a tepid temperature. Stir and allow to stand somewhere warm for 1½ hours, until doubled and bubbly.
Mix in the rest of the flour with the salt and the other 200ml of water. Knead either in the bowl of a mixer with a dough hook or by hand for about 8 minutes, until the soft dough is much more elastic and smooth. Cover and allow to rise again for another hour or two until well risen.
Cut the dough into 5 equal pieces and roll into balls. Set apart on baking paper lightly dusted with extra flour. Cover with a towel and set aside for another 30 minutes. Use your thumbs to gently open the rolls in the center to create donuts. Set aside for another hour.
Heat the oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Remove from the oven and, using a cloth in one hand to protect you from the hot rolls, cut them in half laterally. Return the halves to the baking sheet cut side up and bake for another 25-30 minutes. They will be toasty around the edges and the center will have very slightly sunk.
Once cooled they should be hard and will keep very well, so you’ll have extras.
For the soup, I like to clean the mussels as soon as I get back from the shops, so they have a while to soak. Clean the shells, strip the beards and give them a rinse, then place in highly sea-salted cold water in the fridge for several hours, even overnight. This purifies them and makes them juicier.
Heat a heavy saucepan with a lid over a medium high heat. Add the drained mussels and a splash of fresh water. Cover, shake and cook until all the mussels are open, then empty into a bowl.
Return the pan to the heat, add 4 tablespoons of olive oil and fry the garlic and chilli. When they are sizzling, but not too browned, add the parsley and, 1 minute later, the tomatoes. Cook briskly stirring often. The idea is to render the tomatoes to paste. It should take 10 minutes or so.
Pick the meat from half the mussels. Pass the juice through a sieve if gritty, otherwise don’t bother. For everything into the tomato base and reheat.
Put a frisella in each of four warm bowls and cover with the hot mussel liquid and top with the rest of the mussels. Make sure you use all the juice so that they are saturated.
Allow to soak for a minute before eating.
Lamb and pecorino
This dish of tender strips of lamb sitting on soft potatoes is as indulgent as it is straightforward. I made this for friends and had time for a stroll to the brewery for refreshments while the lamb looked after itself.
boneless breast of lamb 900g (unrolled if sold rolled as a joint)
new potatoes 800g
garlic 6 cloves, whole
bay leaves 10 fresh
red wine 200ml
pecorino romano 50g, grated
red wine vinegar 3 tbsp
capers 1 tbsp
Heat the oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6.
Cut the lamb into strips about 3cm wide and season with salt. Slice the potatoes about 2cm thick.
Heat a wide ovenproof pan with a lid over a medium heat. Add a tablespoon of oil and some of the lamb, skin side down. Allow the lamb to color and contract as the fat begins to render. Cook for 5 minutes, until golden, then turn them over and do the other side. Remove to a plate and repeat with the rest of the meat.
To off the fat and return the pan to a lower heat. Add the garlic and bay, fry for 3 minutes, then turn off the heat. Add the potatoes in one layer, the red wine and half of the cheese. Top with the lamb, a liberal grind of coarse black pepper, the red wine vinegar, the capers and the rest of the cheese. Cover, place in the oven and cook for 2 hours.
When cooked, remove the lamb from the top and spoon off some of the grease to reveal the red wine pecorino juice beneath.
Haddock, samphire, sundried tomatoes and olives
This dish does use a lot of good olive oil, but it’s worthwhile and could not be easier to make.
Use only a little salt when cooking the fish as the samphire will add some of its own. I leave chilli and pepper out because my olive oil is excessively peppery – feel free to add it, though, if you’d like to.
You can swap the smoked haddock for whatever is in season, but make the recipe well ahead – preferably the day before – so the mingle flavors and the olive oil soaks in and brings everything together. We eat this as a starter with thickly sliced, warm wholemeal bread.
Serves 4 have a starter
sundried tomatoes 50g (the dry ones, not jarred)
salted capers 1 tsp
red wine vinegar 3 tbsp
green olives 75g
garlic 1 clove
lemon peel 2 strips
samphire marsh 100g
lightly smoked undyed haddock fillet 250g, preferably pin boned, cut into 2 pieces
olive oil 150ml
Put the sundried tomatoes and capers in a bowl and cover with the red wine vinegar and 200ml of boiling water. Leave to reconstitute for a couple of hours.
Squash the olives with your thumb on a board and remove the stones. Cut the garlic clove into paper thin slices.
Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil with the lemon peel. Add the samphire, then, after a minute, the haddock. Turn the heat down to medium and cook for 2 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave for another minute or 2. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon. If it flakes, it is cooked – if not, return to the hot water. Once cooked, place it in a dish, carefully remove the skin and break into several pieces where it naturally flakes. Drain the samphire and add it to the fish with the drained tomatoes and capers, and the olives and garlic. Cover with olive oil while everything is still warm.
Set aside overnight in the fridge until lunch the next day.
Asparagus, anchovy, parmesan and egg spaghetti
Cooking the asparagus with the pasta adds a lighter touch to an otherwise massively rich celebratory pasta.
onion 1 small
anchovy fillets 8
spaghetti, linguini or bucatini 360g
egg yolks 2 wide
Parmesan cheese 50g, grated
Trim the ends of the asparagus, cut each spear in half and then into long strips.
Slice the onion as finely as possible. In 3 tablespoons of olive oil, sweat the onion over a medium-low heat for 15 minutes, until translucent. Use a tablespoon of water to help if they start to fry. Add the anchovy fillets, stirring until they melt, then turn the heat off.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook the spaghetti for half the time stated on the packet, then add the asparagus to the water.
Whisk the yolks well with the grated cheese, add a ladle of pasta-asparagus water and a generous grind of black pepper.
Drain the pasta, reserving still more pasta water, then toss well with the anchovy sauce in the still warm pan but off the heat. When mixed, add the egg and continue to mix well. Use extra cooking water if you like it looser. Serve right away on hot plates.
Pork and artichokes
The lavender is pungent, strong and very much an optional extra. I’ve only recently rediscovered this flavor having had a bad early experience with lavender ice-cream. I love it, but if I didn’t have gnarled dry lavender in the front garden, I wouldn’t bother at this time of year.
garlic 6 cloves
juniper berries 8
fennel seeds 1 tsp
lavender a sprig
rosemary leaves 1 tbsp
thyme leaves 2 tbsp
sea-salt 1½ tbsp
sugar ½ tbsp
pork neck 1.2kg, skin removed
artichokes 10 medium
parsley 4 sprigs, leaves picked
celery 6 sticks
onion 1 medium, sliced
A day ahead, crush 2 of the garlic cloves in a pestle and mortar with the juniper and fennel seeds. Finely chop the lavender, rosemary and thyme, and add to the garlic with the sea salt and sugar. Mix, then rub it all over the pork and set aside, covered, in the fridge.
The next day, tie the pork up with a piece of string in the middle and at the ends to hold it in a rounded joint shape. Bring to room temperature while you heat the oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7 and prepare the artichokes.
Remove the toughest outer leaves of the artichokes, snapping or cutting them down with scissors. Trim around the base and stem with a small knife. Trim the stalk and the tips to remove the darkest part of the leaves.
Rotate the artichokes upside down and press to open up the leaves a bit and carefully stretch them further with your fingers. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the choke. Rub each one all over with 1 of the lemons, cut in half, to stop them discolouring before you move on to the next.
When all prepped, thinly slice a garlic clove and stuff it between leaves of an artichoke with some parsley leaves, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. Repeat with each one.
Place a casserole on a medium-high heat with a tablespoon of olive oil and sear the pork all over, positioning its best-looking side up when you’re done. Turn the heat off, then surround the meat with the celery, any remaining garlic, the stuffed artichokes, onion, the juice of the remaining lemon and a splash of water.
Cover with a piece of crumpled baking paper and bake for 1¼ hours, or until the pork is hot (above 64C) in the centre.
Leave to rest somewhere warm before slicing and serving.
Joe Trivelli is co-head chef of River Cafe, London
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