Easter is not only the most significant Christian holiday, it is also a great time to gather around the table to break bread with family and friends.
And did you know many of Easter's culinary traditions go back into ancient history?
Have you ever wondered about the Easter egg? To the ancients, it was a symbol of fertility and so was associated with the rites of spring.
Our Christian forefathers adapted the symbolism into the Christian faith, and so today we associate the egg with the story of Jesus rising from the grave and of eternal life for the faithful.
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Some of the food we put on the table at Easter also has religious significance.
The Easter lamb comes from the Jewish tradition of the sacrificial lamb of Passover, but the ham that is so popular in the South has more to do with the way we prepared food before refrigeration.
In the old days, hogs were butchered in the fall when the weather was cool and the risk of the pork going bad was low. It was the only time of year when fresh pork was readily available. It is also when the ham and bacon were salted and smoked, a process that could take some months. We eat ham at Easter because the first hams were finally cured and ready to eat.
Most people today go for a precooked ham, although a fresh one is much better. It may take longer, but the results can be spectacular.
Others prefer a roasted chicken or a leg of lamb or
lamb chops, but veal can be substituted if you can't find the lamb you want, or just don't care for lamb.
Just because this column is based on the Gulf Coast, I am going to throw crab cakes into the mix. I have always thought of them as special, so why not add a little seafood to your Easter table?
It is common to fancy up a ham recipe with pineapple and cherries and all sorts of accompaniments, but it is not necessary. A fresh roasted ham is delicious in all of its simplicity.
FRESH ROASTED HAM
1 fresh ham, 10 to 15 pounds
Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning
Preheat oven to 325° F. Rub the ham vigorously with soy sauce, then liberally sprinkle the entire ham with Tony's. If you prefer a different Creole or Cajun seasoning, or like to make your own, feel free to use it. Place the seasoned ham on an ovenproof tray and bake 18 minutes per pound. You need a meat thermometer to get this one right, so insert it into the thickest part of the ham, and you are good to go when the internal temp is 160°. Let the ham rest for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.
The first time I had a roasted chicken in this style was in a small Spanish city on the Costa del Sol. It was made simply with butter and garlic, and it left an indelible impression on me. When done correctly, few things compare with a perfectly roasted chicken.
HERB ROASTED CHICKEN
1 fryer chicken
1 bunch fresh basil
1 whole head of garlic cut in two
1 small bunch rosemary
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 450°F. Dry the chicken thoroughly. Stuff the cavity with the herbs and garlic, then salt and pepper inside and out. If you want to go the extra step, rub a little butter between the skin and breast -- it will open up like an envelope. Also add a good-size lump of butter in the cavity. Roast in an ovenproof pan for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 325° and roast for 25 minutes. Now, without opening the oven, turn it off and allow the chicken to slowly roast for an additional 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve at once.
This recipe is the ultimate in simplicity.
1 pound lump crab
¼ cup finely diced green onion
1 large clove garlic, finely diced
¼ cup best quality mayo
Juice from ½ lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Optional Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning
Combine the ingredients, being careful not to destroy the delicious chunks of crab. Form into patties, and sauté in butter until golden brown.
VEAL OR LAMB CHOPS
This simple recipe is best grilled on a wood fire.
1-2 veal or lamb chops per person
Fresh rosemary sprigs
2-3 cloves chopped garlic
Combine the rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, add the chops and marinade for 1 hour. Grill over a hot fire until medium rare; please do not overcook them. Serve with roasted potatoes and a good garlic mayonnaise, homemade, of course.
VEAL OR LAMB SHANK
Pair robust roasted shanks with polenta for something different.
1 large shank for every 2 people
Salt and pepper
2-4 chopped carrots
1 chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
1 small bunch rosemary
1 small bunch sage
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Salt and pepper the shanks, then sear in hot oil until well browned. Make sure to use a heavy-bottom roasting pan or even a large sauté pan. Roast for 30 minutes in the hot oven. Remove the shanks and in the same pot, sauté the vegetables for 5 minutes. Add the shank, herbs, stock and wine, return to oven and roast until tender, at least 1 hour. Turn every 15 minutes. Add liquid as required. Serve with rosemary-roasted potatoes and a good, big red Zinfandel.
Julian Brunt, who is from a family with deep Southern roots, writes Coast Cooking in Wednesday's Sun Herald and has a blog at sunherald.com.