Flavour comes to the fore at Easter, with harvests aplenty. On the other side of the world it is a celebration of spring, but here in New Zealand it is our very own harvest festival.
If I think about what makes a meal memorable, it's never just the food - usually there's an adventure behind it. Over the years I've had some truly memorable Easter adventures. Thinking about this makes me realise that in my world, memories are made either through fear or through flavour - or a combination of both.
One Easter we went down to Hicks Bay for some fishing just after a cyclone had gone through - my job at the back of the boat was check the terrifying swell of green water didn't swamp us while the skipper navigated close to the rocks, checking his pots. It was touch and go, but as luck would have it we did get a good feed of crays, which were cooked up in a big copper over a fire.
Another Easter, in Gisborne, it was still warm enough to swim and perfectly calm and so we decided to snorkel out to the reef off Wainui beach. Along the way a pod of orcas came along. What I remember almost as clearly, though, is the barbecued shoulder of lamb we had when we got home.
Another year we kayaked the Raukokore River for Easter with a group of friends. I went down the first three sets of rapids on my helmet and then got so scared I had to portage my kayak through the rest for the entire trip. But for all my terror there I have a potent memory of cooking over a fire by the river - I remember the best hot chocolate on the side of the river, hot milk and melted chocolate, the milky way a bright trail in the the sky and the gentle murmur of the river low still in late autumn, wood smoke wisping in the moonlight.
Easter Sunday is like a mini version of Christmas in our household. We start with a special Easter bread - usually my Festive Gubana - or hot cross buns. Then there's the Easter egg hunt or a foraging adventure to whet the appetite - for wild walnuts, watercress, apples, pears or mushrooms, Easter is a great time to forage. Outdoor activities completed, it's then time to settle in for the grand Easter feast - the longest of leisurely late lunches. Neighbours, friends, relations, everyone is welcome. Here's a toast to autumn and the bounty of nature.
Perfect Roast Lamb
Prep time: 15 mins. Cook time: 1 hr + resting
1.3-1.5kg bone-out leg of lamb (carvery roast)
8-10 anchovies, halved lengthwise
16-20 tiny sprigs rosemary, plus extra whole sprigs
1 unpeeled onion, roughly sliced
1 lemon salt and ground black pepper
2 Tbsp redcurrant jelly
2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp port or red wine
1 Tbsp cornflour
2 Tbsp cold water
Salt and ground black pepper
Use a sharp, thin-bladed knife to make 16-20 narrow, deep cuts all over the lamb. Into each hole stuff half an anchovy fillet (if anchovies are mushy, just grab a ½ tsp mound and stuff it deep into each hole). Insert a sprig of rosemary in each hole and chill until ready to cook. Bring back to room temperature for 15 minutes before roasting. When ready to cook, heat oven to 200C. Place onion slices in a roasting dish and top with the extra rosemary sprigs and the lamb. Halve the lemon, squeeze the juice over the lamb and put the empty halves in the roasting dish, cut-side down. Season lamb with salt and pepper. Roast until cooked to your liking (about 50-60 minutes for medium-rare). Remove meat from roasting dish, cover with tinfoil and a clean tea towel to keep warm, and rest for 10-20 minutes. While meat rests, make Redcurrant Jus. Drain off and discard fat from the roasting dish, leaving onion, rosemary and lemon. Place the roasting dish over direct heat, add redcurrant jelly, stock or water, vinegar and port or red wine, stir well to release pan brownings and simmer 5-10 minutes. Strain off rosemary, onion and lemon shells and discard. Mix cornflour with cold water and add to the dish, stirring to combine. Simmer over a low heat, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Carve lamb at the table and serve with a jug of Redcurrant Jus.
Annabel says: Lamb may be traditional to the Easters of spring in the Northern Hemisphere but it's also a favourite choice for our autumn Easters, as its sweetness partners so well with all the season's harvests. Don't be put off trying it if you don't like anchovies - they melt away to nothing, adding richness and depth of flavour without a hint of fishiness.
Prep time: 20 mins. Cook time: about 2 hours
Serves 6-8 as a side
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 each red and yellow pepper
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp thyme leaves
1 tsp very finely chopped rosemary
¼ cup chopped basil leaves
Salt and ground black pepper
A good pinch of sugar
2-3 green or yellow zucchini, sliced into ½ cm rounds
5 tomatoes, sliced thinly
2 small Asian eggplants, sliced in ½ cm rounds, or
1 medium round eggplant, quartered and thinly sliced
¼ cup basil leaves
Salt and ground black pepper
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp thyme
1 sprig rosemary
Preheat oven to 180C. In a shallow 30-33cm-diameter round pan heat oil and cook onions, peppers and garlic, stirring occasionally over medium-low heat until softened but not browned (about 10 minutes). Add thyme and rosemary and season to taste with salt, pepper and sugar. Smooth evenly in pan. Beginning at the outside of the pan, arrange overlapping slices of zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant on top of the onion mixture. Tuck basil leaves between the layers. Season with extra salt and pepper, drizzle with extra oil, sprinkle with thyme and place a sprig of rosemary on top. Cover tightly and bake for 1½ hours. Uncover and cook until the juices have all but evaporated (about 30 minutes). Vegetable Tian keeps for 3-4 days in the fridge and is delicious hot or cold.
Annabel says: This is a spectacular vegetable side dish, which can also stand in as a vegetarian main course. It's so pretty with its layers of vegetables and worth the little extra bit of effort that goes into its construction - layers of zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant atop a rich, fragrant onion base.
Prep time 15 mins + rising
Cook time 30 mins
Makes 2 festive rolls
2 cups milk
3 tsp dry yeast granules
¾ cup sugar
6 cups high-grade flour
1 tsp salt
3 cups sweet fruit mince
1 cup chocolate chips
Icing sugar, to dust
Preheat oven to 180C. Line two 26-28cm round cake tins with baking paper.
Place the butter in a small pot and heat gently until melted. Remove from the heat and add the milk. The mixture should be at blood temperature before you sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the top. Stir for a minute or two until the yeast is absorbed.
Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the milk mixture and stir until just combined. Tip the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky - about 60-100 kneading strokes. Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled container, cover with a clean cloth and leave to rise in a warm place until it has almost doubled in size (about 1 hour). When risen, divide the dough in half. Roll half the dough out to about 1cm thickness to form a 60 x 30cm rectangle. Spread half the fruit mince over each rectangle, leaving a 2cm border.
Sprinkle over half the chocolate chips. Roll the rectangle up tightly along the longest edge to create a long cylinder shape and place into one of the lined cake tins. Repeat the process with the other half of the dough and filling to make the second Festive Gubana. Cover loaves with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes until nearly doubled in size.
Bake for 30 minutes until golden and cooked through. Dust with icing sugar to serve.
Annabel says: Every Easter I make this festive loaf, which has its origins in Friuli, to the east of Venice. Traditionally, a brioche dough is prepared with a complex filling of nuts, fruits, liqueurs, spices, jam and cocoa. My version takes a few shortcuts and uses an abbreviated filling, based around fruit mince, chocolate and nuts. It tastes great.