Annie and I have a tradition of sorts to get together with friends and whatever family is in town and make a big Easter dinner. Neither of us are religious so the gathering is more of a celebration of springtime and all the bright, fresh food that comes with it. Last year, as you may remember, Annie and I served Mixed Baby Greens with Blackberry Vinaigrette, Sweet Pea Soup with Mint Pesto, Grilled Asparagus with Lemon Herb Bread Crumbs, Garlic and Rosemary Creamy Polenta, and Wine Braised Lamb Shanks with Herbes de Provence. It was all done in a succession of courses and was decidedly formal, with wine pairings for each course, although it was still pretty casual. This year we decided to make it more low key. We decided that in lieu of having courses, we'd just have big bowls and platters of things that we'd just have on the table and pass, family style. This was partially inspired by the fact that Easter Sunday was also the season premiere of the final season of the Sopranos. I'm not a fan of the show but I liked the idea of using it as a springboard for the creation of the menu.
It's a little cheesy I guess. Perhaps even a little cliche. I mean I feel like I saw Rachel Ray talking about doing a Sopranos night and serving a bunch of eye-talian food. I probably rolled my eyes when she brought it up. And yet here we were, doing the same thing. However, the difference that made it justifiable in my head was that we were going to do Italian food more in the vein of Mario Batali and Michael Chiarello, rather than the big plate of pasta with red sauce, or "Sunday Gravy" as some people call it. The most traditional thing we had, the sort of centerpiece of the dinner was an amazing, deep dish Eggplant Parmesan, that Jody prepared. To go with it we did a very simple bowl of linguini dressed with lemon juice and zest, chopped garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese and parsley. We also did a Mario Batali fish dish - roasted halibut topped with coarsely chopped Gaeta olives, parsley, and thinly sliced garlic, as well as two salads - an heirloom tomato Caprese and this variation on the classic Tuscan bread salad, also known was "Panzanella," which comes from Mr. Chiarello.
(for the croutons)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
6 tablespoons minced fresh basil
3 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
1 pound day-old country bread in 1/2-inch cubes (remove crust if hard)
Gray salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/3 cup freshly grated pecorino romano
(for the dressing)
1-1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup chicken stock, plus more for moistening the salad
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
(for the salad)
2/3 cup thinly sliced scallion greens
1-1/2 cups cooked peas
1/2 cup grated pecorino Toscano
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
6 cups spring greens lightly dressed with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Heat the butter in a skillet over moderate heat until it begins to brown. Add the chopped garlic and stir briefly to release its fragrance. Remove from the heat and add the minced basil and thyme.
Stir to combine. Pour the butter mixture over the bread cubes in a bowl and toss briskly so butter coats the cubes evenly. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the two cheeses. Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet, scraping all the seasonings over them.
Bake until lightly browned but still soft, about 15 minutes to 20 minutes, making sure to stir the bread every few minutes or so. Let cool on baking sheet.
Meanwhile make the dressing. If using fresh peas, blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, then shock in ice water. Drain. In a stainless saucepan, simmer blanched peas or frozen peas in cream until the cream is hot, then puree in a blender.
Cool the puree, then whisk together with chicken stock and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large serving bowl, combine toasted bread cubes, scallions, peas, pecorino Toscano, lemon juice and lemon zest. Pour in the dressing and toss well, adding a little more broth if panzanella seems dry. If you like, you can let the bread cubes sit for about 30 minutes or so, so they soak up the dressing and become soft. I happen to prefer the bread to still have just a bit of crunch. Whatever you're partial to, add the dressed spring greens just before serving, so the lettuce doesn't get soggy, and then toss to combine.
As you may or may not know, the traditional Panzanella is made up of toasted bread cubes that gets marinated in a light vinaigrette and then is tossed with chopped tomatoes, chunks of cucumber, sliced red onion, as well as black olives, capers, anchovies, and lots of garlic. It's great for summertime, when tomatoes are at their peak.
This variation, however, is perfect for spring. The peas are vibrant and fresh, their lemony essence echoed by the juice and zest that gets tossed in with everything. I have to admit that I had pangs of guilt over my use of frozen peas (the horror, the shame) rather than fresh, but to be honest, I just didn't feel like trying to track them down and then shell and blanch them. And to be honest, most of the peas get pureed in the dressing anyway so it doesn't really make a difference. You could splurge and use fresh in the salad, but frozen really do work just fine. Besides, if Nancy Silverton is now giving permission to use "supermarket shortcuts," then who am I to argue?
Despite the fact that one of the main ingredients is bread that has been doused with butter and showered with cheese, the salad actually feels really light. I mean as light as a bowl of bread could possibly be. It's a great dish to take to a gathering or bar-be-que since it can sit out on a buffet for a while and not get withered and sad looking.
Next time, I might add some grilled asparagus. I'd also shave the cheese with a vegetable peeler so there are thick curls, rather than a fine grating. I think it would look prettier and give a nice contrast of texture to the soft/crunchy bread and the bright pop of the peas.
Serves 8 or more