Had my high school yearbook had the designation, “Least Likely to Succeed,” I probably would have been a shoe-in for that distinction. My photograph, with overly bow-dried hair and an opened-to-the-third-button large-collared shirt, would have been posted directly across the page from Lynn and Chris who were awarded “Best School Spirit” or “Friendliest” or some such thing. Thankfully the school I attended chose not to single out the lesser among us. A high-school principal, in a state of frustration, once said to me, “St. John, you’ll never amount to anything!”
Whatever I have— (or have not) become in my life and whatever degree of success, skill, or talent I may (or may not) have attained, one fact remains: I will never live up to the Easter meals my grandmother served in her home.
I am a fairly good host. I have taken a spiritual-gifts test on three separate occasions as a part of a Sunday school class or small group, and each time my primary spiritual gift has been the gift of hospitality. I never knew there was such a thing. The first time I took the test and received that result, I assumed that my former principal may have called them ahead of time and said, “Look guys, take it easy on St. John. He’s not even going to tip the spiritual-gifts scale when it comes to skills such as wisdom, discernment, and administration. Just stick a category in there called ‘hospitality’ and he’ll at least feel like he’s a part of the group.”
I learned that hospitality is a spiritual gift and that I might have been anointed with a little of it. I enjoy entertaining whether it is in one of our restaurants or in my home. Though I have never entertained with the ease my grandmother employed. She was a genteel and graceful southern lady and lived in a beautiful old house in which the large, formal dining room was the center of everything.
We ate there almost every Sunday after church and on evenings when out-of-town relatives would come for a visit. Everything was very proper— fine china, sterling silver, crystal, and lace. My brother and I always had to wear a coat and tie. Her table was always adorned with fresh-cut flowers from her yard and after decades of planting, something was always in bloom no matter the month or season.
We ate leg of lamb throughout the year but Easter Sunday was the year’s ultimate lamb meal. After 36 years in the restaurant business with hundreds of thousands of meals prepared, I have never been able to recreate a meal as good as any of my grandmother’s Easter lunches.
If I were to break down one of those meals, none of the single components might even qualify for a menu item offering in our fine-dining restaurant, but it’s the meal as a whole, the experience of being in that dining room with those people eating leg of lamb that left such an impact. The entire meal was treated with a reverence that is almost non-existent today.
I have all of her old china, silver, crystal, and lace. I even have the dining room table and the chandelier that hung above it. My dining room is much smaller, but that’s not it. I might have cooked a leg of lamb that was as good as one of hers (my gravy is never as good, and no matter how many years I live I’ll never make rolls as good as hers), and I know I have cooked vegetables as good as— or better than— hers. But even after catering six-figure wedding receptions and formal parties for three decades, I have never pulled off an entire meal that was as fine and complete as any of my grandmother’s Easter lunches. I am OK with that. I can live with it.
It makes me a little sad that my children never got to experience the grandeur of their great-grandmother’s home and the ease with which she entertained. We are a very informal family. My son has never worn a coat and tie to church, ever. We attend a casual service and we like it that way. We also dine out more often.
What I am left with are memories, and I imagine my memories are probably a little grander than the actual meals were, and I am OK with that, too. Even though my children never ate in their great-grandmother’s dining room, they have heard enough stories from me to know what it was like and they understand the impact it made on me.
My hope is that my wife and I are somehow creating memories for our son and daughter, and that one day they will relay those experiences and remembrances to their children. If that happens then no matter what level of success the external world, principals, and yearbooks determine that I may, or may not, have achieved, I’ll consider this life to have been a success.
Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Chutney
Preheat oven to 375
1 Leg of Lamb, bone in, about 6-7 pounds
12 cloves fresh garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbl fresh chopped rosemary
1 Tbl fresh chopped thyme
3 Tbl kosher salt
1 Tbl fresh ground black pepper
Using a paring knife, cut 12 small pockets, spread out in the lamb leg.
Insert one clove of garlic into each pocket.
Rub the leg with the olive oil, the rub the herbs, salt and pepper over the leg.
Place the lamb in a large roasting pan, and place it in the preheated oven.
Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to achieve a medium rare temperature. If using a thermometer, it should register 145 degrees.
Remove from the oven and allow the lamb to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly around the bone and serve.
Raspberry Mint Chutney
1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup shallots, minced
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 Tbl fresh ginger, minced fine
2 tsp curry powder
1 /4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1 /2 cup sherry
3 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup mint jelly
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp water
1 /2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbl fresh mint, chopped
In a small sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and cook shallots 3-4 minutes. Stir in garlic, ginger and seasonings, and cook 3-4 more minutes, stirring often. Do not let garlic brown. Deglaze with sherry and reduce by half.
Stir in 2 cups of the raspberries, chicken broth and bay leaf and simmer 15-20 minutes, until reduced by half. Stir in mint jelly and cook three minutes more, stirring constantly. Dissolve the cornstarch with the 2 teaspoons of water and stir it into the simmering sauce. Allow the sauce to thicken then remove from the heat and strain. Stir in the vinegar, fresh mint and remaining cup of raspberries.
Serve at room temperature.
Asparagus Bread Pudding
1 cup asparagus, cut into one-inch long pieces
1 Tbl Olive Oil
1/2 cup White Onion, diced
1/2 cup Red Pepper, diced
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
1 /2 cup Riesling Wine
12 Tbl Fresh Basil, chopped
1 tsp Dry Mustard
1 cup Sour Cream
1 cup Half and Half
1 /2 cup Whole Milk
4 Egg Yolks
6 cups French bread, crust removed and small diced
Preheat oven to 325.
Place three cups of water into a small saucepot and bring to a boil. Place the asparagus pieces in the boiling water and cook for 45 seconds Strain the asparagus and run it under cold water until cooled completely. Drain and dry the asparagus pieces and set aside.
In a medium-sized sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions and peppers for two-three minutes. Add the cooked asparagus, salt and pepper and cook for one more minute. Add the wine and allow it to reduce by half. Remove this mixture from the heat and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the basil, dry mustard, sour cream, half and half, milk and eggs. Blend them together and fold in the cooked vegetables and French bread. Cover and allow the mixture to set for one hour before baking.
Place the pudding mixture into a lightly buttered 2 quart Pyrex baking dish. Cover the pudding with a piece of parchment paper, and cover the parchment paper with a piece of aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes covered. Remove the foil and paper and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
Allow pudding to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Yields: 8-10 servings
Hearts of Palm and Artichoke Salad
1 Tbl dijon mustard
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbl shallots, minced
3 Tbl balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup cottonseed oil
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
1 Tsp fresh black pepper
1 Tsp kosher salt
1 Tbl fresh basil
1 cup tomato, finely diced
Place all ingredients into a mixing bowl and blend together using a wire whisk. Refrigerate until needed. This dressing will hold for 4-5 days refrigerated.
1/2 cup olive oil
1 Tbl fresh garlic, minced
3 cups French bread cubes (1”)
1/2 Tbl kosher salt
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Place the oil in a small sauté pan over low heat. Add the garlic to the war oil and cook for two minutes. Place the bread cubes into a large mixing bowl and drizzle the garlic oil over the bread. Toss the bread several times to ensure that all bread has been mixed well with the oil. Place the bread on a baking she and sprinkle the kosher salt over the unbaked croutons. Bake for 10 minutes. Gently turn the croutons on the baking sheet and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.
For The Salad
2-14 ounce cans hearts of palm, 1/4 inch slice on a bias
2-12 ounce jars marinated artichoke hearts, drained
1 cup red onion, thinly shaved
3 cups romaine lettuce, cut into thin pieces
3/4 cup Romano cheese, shredded, divided
3 cups garlic croutons
Place the hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, red onions, romaine lettuce, half of the cheese and the croutons in a large mixing bowl. Pour the dressing into the bowl and toss the ingredients with the dressing, making sure to coat everything completely. Place in a large serving bowl, or on individual serving plates and top with the remaining romano cheese. serve immediately.
Yield: 8 servings