After a year of cancellations I am only too thrilled at the prospect of a government-sanctioned holiday, albeit an outdoor one.
Of course, dining al fresco in early April is always going to be a gamble. Apart from the obvious practical steps (advise guests to dress warmly, come up with a rain plan), a menu that takes into account the limitations of outdoor dining will set you up for success.
An Italian Easter Feast
Marinated Fire-Roasted Peppers
Chunks of Parmesan
Breadsticks with Homemade Pesto
Truffled Mushroom Crostini
Olives & Artichokes
Italian Lamb Stew
Chocolate Fondant with Chocolate Ice Cream
My principal consideration is the issue of keeping stuff warm: a freezing cold plate of food (that was meant to be warm in the first place) is a major let-down. The obvious solution is to serve something that is cold to begin with, thereby eliminating any risk of the elements destroying all your hard work. Antipasti is the perfect choice, allowing a slow, casual start to a delicious meal.
While I will happily contemplate one cold course, I can’t quite get on board with an entirely cold meal, particularly in early April. A bowl of warming lamb stew will stay hot satisfactorily long enough, particularly if served in pre-warmed bowls.
And well, the chocolate fondant just won’t be around long enough to get cold.
Logistics dealt with, it’s time to make it really special.
Just because you’re aiming for a casual atmosphere, it doesn’t mean you can dig out your paper plates. Fine china, cloth napkins and some table décor make the meal feel festive and special, rather than being defeated by one compromise after the next due to the logistical limitations. I like formal china, cutlery and glasses, and the contrast of rustic white linens and a simple potted spring flower to bring balance and harmony with the outdoor setting.
A potted hyacinth and chocolate mini eggs in egg cups were my decorations of choice, helped considerably by a garden full of florals.
For a relaxed but exciting start to any party, big or small, you can’t beat a well-curated grazing board. I love the shared experience of a big board of nibbles, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.
Of this selection, truffled mushroom crostini is the more substantial offering, backed up by jarred flame-roasted peppers marinated with lemon, parsley and olive oil, some good quality artichoke hearts and olives (pits in, always), thick shavings of parmesan (the slicing side of a box grater does this really well), good quality breadsticks and homemade pesto. A good quality jarred pesto is completely fine, but if you’re in the mood to make your own you will be greatly rewarded.
For me at Easter, it has to be lamb. The lamb stew that follows is an adapted version of my Italian beef stew, using diced lamb shoulder. Pancetta omitted, white wine swapped for red, and fat necessarily drained after the browning stage. Otherwise, the recipe holds really well, and with a bit of fresh parsley on top it’s just about perfect. The stew needs nothing more than a slice of rosemary focaccia – make it or buy it.
Finally, it’s not Easter without chocolate.
Chocolate fondant, otherwise known as chocolate molten / lava cakes, are easily scaled down for a small party (I can’t bear the thought of being left with 3/4 of a cake). These are beyond delicious, and since I was served one of these in Tuscany by an Italian family, I feel perfectly happy including these in an Italian-themed feast. Authentic enough for me.
Finish with a scoop of chocolate ice cream (pictured), vanilla ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream, or nothing at all.
A bottle or two of Chianti and a good weather report are the only remaining essentials.