As wonderful as a baked ham may be, there can be more, or at least something different, to the Easter menu. Lamb, salmon and roasts are all acceptable stand-ins for the traditional lead. Pair any with the bright lights of the spring harvest, and you’ll give the holiday meal a respectful update.
Being culinarily thoughtful is paramount. Easter is not the occasion to trot out the latest technique gleaned from “Top Chef” or go with whatever’s on sale at supermarket. If you are going to stray from the familiar, make sure the meal still has elements of tradition: abundance, seasonality and sufficient elegance. The trick then is to match up every piece of the meal so they all work together, complementing the (somewhat) unexpected main course.
There are a couple of distinct avenues you can follow if you choose the non-ham path. The first is a dressy but simple menu anchored by a side of salmon and paired with a warm potato salad. The other is actually a ham, but fresh; the same cut of meat, only without the curing or smoking. Roast the fresh ham slowly so that its layer of fat gently melts and bastes the meat, and then pair it with a salad of the Italian heirloom grain farro, some sauteed pea shoots, spring onions and crumbled feta.
The appearance of salmon is itself a sign of spring and, accordingly, fits perfectly with Easter. The primary challenge in preparing fish for a crowd is cooking it just right. You can remove that worry by poaching the fish and serving it cold. Gently simmer large fillets of the fish in a tangy broth of white wine, shallots and fresh tarragon (a court-bouillon) until the fish is a beautiful pale pink yet seems a tad underdone at the center. Then cool the salmon to room temperature so that carry-over cooking will help it coast to a perfect medium doneness. Serve it chilled, with a light sauce of creme fraiche, lemon and fresh tarragon.
Balance the lightness of the cold salmon with a warm potato salad. Make it good and tangy, like a German potato salad, by tossing just-boiled new potatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar. Then fold in fresh mint and thyme, blanched asparagus pieces and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The acidity of the potato salad will cut through the intensity of the salmon, and the presence of the herbs and asparagus will transform the pairing into a balanced meal. Finish out the duo with lightly dressed baby arugula or spinach if you feel so moved.
Like the poached salmon, a fresh ham is easy to execute for this sort of occasion, yet it delivers a different, and perhaps cleaner, flavor than traditional glazed holiday hams. The beauty of a fresh ham is that its fatty exterior is like a constant self-basting brush, slowly melting as it roasts, keeping all of the different muscles inside nice and juicy. Roast a fresh half-ham (which should weigh in at approximately 10 pounds and serve 10 to 12) in two steps. Start with high heat (450 degrees) to brown, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and brush with a honey-mustard glaze every half-hour or so until the meat just cooks through. In all, the roasting will take about three hours, and the flavors of the glaze will soak into the scored hollows of the ham’s outer layer, creating an intensely flavored crust.
The farro salad, served warm or at room temperature, offsets the indulgence of the ham. Its nutty grain looks like wheat berries, only with a more delicate texture, and offers no shortage of nutrients.