- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Reality is a buzzword. It seems that every other television show is based on reality. Yet reality rarely rears its head in television cooking shows.

Yes, I know that they, too, are supposed to be real. But are they realistic? A few months ago, I watched a TV cooking show as a popular chef demonstrated a Thanksgiving dinner that included trimmed fresh artichokes. Through the magic of time-lapse photography, it took no effort at all to prep each vegetable.

In real life, for an amateur cook without assistants or the benefit of time-shaved photography, eight thorny thistles and a sharp paring knife would take quite a bit of time to maneuver.

I know because my e-mail in-box was stuffed with gripes from my readers, who related nightmarish stories about spending so much time on the artichokes that they were left with precious little energy for tackling the Thanksgiving turkey and other components of the meal.

As Easter approaches, I am reminded of that story. It has been months since my last proper holiday dinner, and I plan to pull out all the stops to make this meal memorable. I will go out of my way to find the longest tulips and tallest lilies for the floral arrangement. I will search for special favors to dress up the dining room. But I know my limitations, particularly when it comes to allotting time for meal preparation.

As with all my entertaining, I make sure the dishes are tasty, attractive, seasonal and — most of all — easy to prepare. I may have written more than 25 cookbooks, but my favorite recipes are still those that reward me with full-flavored results without leaving me exhausted.

As I tell students in my cooking classes, it is a lot more difficult to make a memorable meal with a handful of ingredients than it is to prepare a restaurant-style meal with unlimited ingredients and a bottomless budget.

For Easter, I love to celebrate the traditional flavors of spring. Although many foods that were originally harvested only in spring are available year-round, I still prefer to create menus with the customary cycles in mind.

The bill of fare will be boneless roast leg of lamb with herbs; creamy asparagus, potato and leek soup; and a home-baked pie bursting with fresh strawberries. And yes, we will include those pesky artichokes, … although in this recipe for roasted lemon potatoes with artichokes, frozen hearts that don’t require trimming are just fine.

Planning is another important part of entertaining. Balance recipes requiring last-minute attention with those that can be made ahead of time. For example, the asparagus, potato and leek soup I am planning can be made a day or two before the meal and reheated at the last minute.

The double strawberry pie actually needs refrigeration to set up, so you can get it out of the way the day before.

Unlike the chefs on TV, I don’t have two ovens in my kitchen, so I need to cook the side dish at the same temperature as the main dish, something that I can do with the lamb and roasted lemon potatoes.

If I learned one thing during my many years as a caterer, it is the importance of lists. Guests find it amusing to see the preparation list for their dinner taped to my refrigerator, with all of the chores scratched off as they are accomplished. I consider this list essential.

More than once, I have neglected to prepare or serve something, only to be reminded by my list. Put every detail on the list, including coffee and tea and butter for rolls. You won’t regret it.

Once dinner is planned, I turn my attention to the table decorations. Even when there are only adults at the table, I still use Easter as an excuse to ply my guests with egg-shaped jelly beans (spice flavored for me, please), chocolate-covered marshmallow eggs, malted milk eggs and, of course, marshmallow chicks (yellow only — not that I’m particular).

A trip to the discount merchandise emporium in town always yields a treasure trove of inexpensive mini straw baskets ready to be filled with candies. When a discount store offered small plush animals on sale, I picked up a few and placed one at each table setting. The dining room looked especially inviting that year, with all those bunnies sitting at attention.

I remember the time I decided (on Saturday night) that if Picasso had ever decorated Easter eggs, my eggs would make him green with envy. By the time I finished the project, there was more color on my hands and shirt than on the eggs.

Since then, I have simply hard-cooked brown and white eggs and decorated them with colorful stickers from a toy store or stationer’s. Colored markers, which also come in glittery ink, are also great time savers. For place cards, write the guests’ names with markers on the eggs and tuck them into small baskets at each place setting.

Easter is a time of rejuvenation, and my goal is to be sure that the cook of the holiday meal won’t need to be first in line for rejuvenation.

The recipes that follow are from my book “Celebrations 101” (Broadway Books).

Asparagus, potato and leek soup

Soup is my favorite first course because it is entirely make-ahead. This pale green soup tastes of springtime.

3 pounds asparagus

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups leeks (about 4 medium), chopped and rinsed (white and pale green parts only)

1 48-ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 large (about 10 ounces) baking potato, such as russet or Burbank, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice

½ cup heavy whipping cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Additional heavy whipping cream for garnish, optional

Rinse asparagus well. Bend back each stalk, letting it snap naturally where tender flesh becomes tough and woody; discard stems. Cut off tips from about 1/3 of spears; reserve for garnish. Cut remaining asparagus into 1-inch pieces.

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add leeks and cover tightly. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes.

Add broth, chopped asparagus and potato, and bring to a boil over high heat. Return heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in heavy cream, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add reserved tips; cook until barely tender, about 4 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water and drain again.

In batches, puree soup in blender. (Or use a hand blender to puree soup in pot.) Return to pot, if necessary, and add tips. Cook, stirring often, to heat tips through without boiling. (The soup can be prepared up to 1 day ahead, cooled, covered and refrigerated. Reheat gently over low heat, stirring often. If soup thickens on standing, pour in additional broth to thin soup as needed.)

Transfer soup to a warmed soup tureen and serve hot, drizzling each serving with a few drops of heavy cream, if desired. Serves 8.

Roast leg of lamb with herbs

Here’s one of the easiest and best ways to roast a boneless leg of lamb that I know: Have the butcher bone a leg of lamb, then make a lamb stock from the bones to use for your sauce. If that isn’t an option, simply use 2 cups beef stock for the light sauce. The lamb and stock can be prepared up to 1 day ahead.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 61/4-pound leg of lamb, boned by the butcher, with bones reserved and sawed into 2-inch pieces (about 4 pounds boneless leg of lamb)

1 14.5-ounce can reduced-sodium beef broth

½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 garlic clove, crushed through a press

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

To make lamb stock, heat oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add lamb bones and cook, turning occasionally, until well-browned. Add canned beef broth and enough cold water to cover bones by 1 inch, about 1 quart. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that rises to surface. Reduce heat to low.

Simmer for at least 2 hours, up to 4 hours. Strain and let stand for 10 minutes. Skim off any fat that rises to surface. (The stock can be made 1 day ahead, cooled, covered and refrigerated.)

Using a sharp, thin knife, trim lamb of excess fat and any thin membrane. Turn lamb over and make a few deep incisions into, but not cutting through, thick parts of meat. Spread incisions apart to give lamb a more even thickness. Season lamb with salt and pepper to taste. Cover lamb with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or overnight).

Place lamb, smooth side out, on a large rimmed baking sheet. Mix mustard and garlic; spread over lamb. Sprinkle with rosemary and thyme. Roast lamb on rack in top third of preheated 450-degree oven until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 125 degrees for medium-rare, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer lamb to a carving board and let stand for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, place sheet with any cooking juices over two burners on high heat. Add 2 cups of lamb stock or broth. (Reserve remaining lamb stock for another purpose.) Boil until liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Using a sharp, thin knife, slice meat across grain and transfer to a serving platter. Pour any carving juices and pan sauce over meat. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

Roasted lemon potatoes with artichokes

These golden-brown potatoes can be roasted in the oven, along with the lamb, on another rack.

4 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut lengthwise into sixths

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for sheet or pan

2 10-ounce packages frozen artichoke hearts, thawed

Grated zest of 2 lemons

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Salt and pepper

Lightly oil a large rimmed baking sheet or shallow baking pan.

Toss potatoes with 2 tablespoons of oil in a large bowl. Spread on baking sheet and place on rack in lower third of preheated 450-degree oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Turn potatoes with a metal spatula, and bake for 15 minutes more.

Toss artichokes with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and mix into potatoes. Continue baking until potatoes are tender and lightly browned, about 20 minutes more.

Transfer potatoes and artichokes to serving bowl. Sprinkle with lemon zest, then lemon juice and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and mix. Serve hot. Makes 8 servings.

Green beans with feta and olives

Plain green beans are enlivened with flavorful olives and sharp feta cheese. Parboil the green beans the night before the meal.

Pat them dry with paper towels. Wrap in more paper towels, and store them in self-sealing plastic bags in the refrigerator. Then saute them just before serving.

Salt

11/4 pounds green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons chopped shallots

½ cup pitted and coarsely chopped black Mediterranean olives, such as Kalamata

Pepper

½ cup (2 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add green beans; cook uncovered until beans are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain well.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 1 minute. Add green beans and olives, and cook, stirring often, until beans are hot, about 5 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish, and sprinkle cheese on top. Serve hot. Makes 8 servings.

Double strawberry pie

This fresh-tasting, brightly colored pie will remind you of the best pie in a bakery, but homemade is better.

Pastry dough for a 9½-inch pie pan

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

3 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled

2/3 cup sugar or more

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Whipped cream, for serving

Roll out dough 1/8 inch thick. Line pie pan and flute edges. Freeze dough-lined pan for 15 minutes. Pierce dough with fork. Line pan with aluminum foil, and fill with dried beans, raw rice or pie weights.

Bake on rack in bottom third of preheated 400-degree oven until dough is set, about 10 minutes. Remove foil with beans, rice or pie weights, and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes more. Cool completely.

Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water in small bowl. Let stand until gelatin softens, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, puree about 1 pound of berries in blender or food processor. (You should have 1½ cups.)

Bring berry puree, 2/3 cup sugar and the lemon juice to boil over medium heat. Taste and add more sugar, if needed. Remove from heat. Add gelatin and stir well (at least 1 minute) to dissolve gelatin. Pour into medium bowl set in larger bowl of iced water. Let stand, stirring often, until cool but not set, about 10 minutes.

Depending on size, cut remaining berries into halves or quarters. Heap berries into pie crust. Pour cooled gelatin mixture over berries. Refrigerate uncovered until set, at least 2 hours. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 1 day.

Cut into wedges and serve with whipped cream. Makes 8 servings.

Rick Rodgers is the author or co-author of more than 25 books.

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