By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Brooklyn. Oodles of spring bulbs are blooming in both my front and back gardens and they’ve yet to reach their peak.
Yesterday’s daily bloom count: 130+ daffodils in the front yard, 194+ in the back garden (counting each stalk of tazettas as one bloom); plus 13 tulips in the front, 20 in the back. I’ll do a fresh count later today and I’ll pluck some of those in the back garden, to fill a vase or two inside and spruce up our Easter table.
Daffodils are very easy to grow, and unlike most tulips, they return in greater numbers year after year. Many of those currently popping up in our back garden sprang from bulbs originally planted when we first moved in during the mid-90’s. One must merely remember to plant them in the autumn, preferably before the earth freezes.
The pandemic has largely confined us to quarters, so I’ve spent lots of time gardening, tending and reviving plantings. Our back garden was once very shady, overshadowed by a neighbor’s huge maple and with our own three-trunked river birch as its centerpiece. Each tree became diseased and had to be cut down, leaving us with a very sunny space. Last summer, I added some new plants, and divided and rearranged existing ones. The front garden gets full sunshine during the spring, but then becomes shady when the massive oak tree overhead fills out with leaves.
My husband constructed some large planters – very large planters – which I’ve filled with lenten roses and heuchera; roses, daffodils, and tulips; and other plants and bulbs that should appear throughout the summer. Some of last summer’s herb plants survived the winter: rosemary, sage, bay. I’ll soon add to those. Although I expect food supply issues to arise this summer, I’ve decided not to rip out the existing plants and replace them with vegetables. I have plenty of indoor space for storing food and I’ve been stockpiling extra supplies instead.
We’ve also planted a new Japanese maple, a cherry tree, a fig tree, a pomegranate tree, and a couple of camellias – which do well in this space. I’ve tried to plant things that will attract pollinators – although it’s still a bit too cool for bees and butterflies to appear. But in May, the bees will be buzzing about the bluebells and they remained in residence throughout last summer (see Bees and Bluebells: Celebrating World Bee Day By Encouraging Pollinators in My Garden). Readers offered many helpful suggestions about attracting more bees in response to that post.
This summer, I’d like to entice more butterflies to join the bees. Once the ground warms up, I’ll sow some milkweed seeds – a first for me. I’ll also sow morning glories – with which I’ve had great success in the past; like daffodils, they’re easy to grow provided one soaks the seeds before planting and nicks the tough outer seed coating with a sharp knife or razor blade before planting them. My butterfly bush died last year and must be replaced. Readers: what else do you plant to attract butterflies?
As soon as I finish this post, I’ll start putting together our Easter dinner. It’ll be just the two of us this year and we’ll have ham, which I’ll glaze with balsamic vinegar and serve with a mustard sauce. My husband loves roast potatoes, so there will be plenty of those. I parboil them and then carefully toss them into hot fat bubbling in the oven – using dripping, or sometimes duck or goose fat (which can be strained and reused on the next special occasion). Also, we’ll have some carrot puree with fresh dill that’s lurking in the fridge, and I’ll roast some asparagus, to serve with horseradish butter.
Today’s dessert: a simnel cake, the traditional English Easter cake, a light fruit cake frosted with marzipan. I’ve never made one before and I intend to use Nigella Lawson’s recipe. My husband is English, so I’ve learned to make traditional English ‘puddings’ – Christmas cakes and Christmas puddings. Those must be started weeks if not months before you intend to eat them, and ‘fed’ with brandy or other alcohol. I serve these with plenty of brandy butter. Unlike these other puds, Simnel cake can be made and eaten the same day – or so Nigella tells me – and I’ll bake mine later this afternoon.
Growing up, I don’t remember the main courses that were served at Easter. In this respect, this holiday is unlike Thanksgiving, where the menu didn’t vary much from year to year. For Easter, I think we usually had ham or roast pork. What I do remember were the Polish specialties on the table: sautéed mushrooms; kielbasa with sauerkraut, and my mother’s babka, a yeasted bread, stuffed with sweetened cheese, with a hint of cardamom. And lots of Easter chocolate. My mother made a point of getting chocolate from a specialty chocolate shop in Chester, NJ, located part way between our family home and that of my Aunt Stel and Uncle Joe, with whom we usually celebrated holidays. My four siblings and I each had our own solid chocolate rabbit: milk, dark, or white chocolate; foil-wrapped chocolate eggs; and yellow marshmallow chickens.
This year I had a craving for Easter chocolate, so I ordered some from what Time Out has called the best chocolate shop in NYC, Aigner’s Chocolates, a business founded in 1930. Although the recipes are Austrian; these chocolates taste like the ones I remember from chocolate shops of my youth, rather than Swiss, Belgian, or other pricey ‘designer’ chocolates. I selected one chocolate rabbit for my husband and one for my mother (whom we’ll be visiting early in May), and some assorted old-fashioned chocolates for myself – peanut butter cups, cherry cordials, Vienna truffles, dark peppermint patties. Now, I’ll confess I didn’t wait for Easter to sample the chocolates and in fact, the day they arrived, I ate 11 of them. Yes, eleven! Sheer gluttony! Behaving like a kid in a candy store. And, I don’t have a chocolate habit. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I bought chocolates. But these were that good. I’m lucky Easter only comes once a year.
Passover was celebrated on 15th April this year, which reminds me of another favorite food: potato pancakes. My mother loves potato pancakes and makes a version that’s very much like traditional latkes, which she serves with fresh apple sauce and sour cream. For my father, dinner wasn’t a proper meal unless there was some meat on the table. Mom only served potato pancakes to us on those occasions when a sporting event or other school obligation meant Dad wasn’t going to be home for dinner. So, she was free to serve a vegetarian meal. Potato pancakes always remind me of those special meals with Mom. My version is much more complicated than hers and riffs on a Deborah Madison recipe. I include grated parboiled floury (aka Russets or Idaho potatoes), chopped scallions, parsley, grated cheese, egg, sour cream, and some spices. I fry them in olive oil until crisp outside and because the potatoes are parboiled, there’s no risk of burning the outside before the inside is properly cooked. But I wouldn’t turn down Mom’s either. Sometime next week, I’ll make potato pancakes.
How about you, readers? What’s is/was on your holiday dinner table?