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Alex Guarnaschelli’s Easter Memories and Recipes

The star of multiple Food Network shows, including Ciao House, shares family memories of Easter and a few tasty menu ideas for salads and sides.

Alex Guarnaschelli

Alex Guarnaschelli is getting geared up for Easter. Photo: Squire Fox

The stereotypical Italian-American Easter gathering involves lots of family and friends, but that’s not the experience that Alex Guarnaschelli had growing up as an only child in Manhattan. The Food Network fixture from Ciao House, Iron Chef, and Chopped, who also is executive chef at Butter in New York City and the co-author of the best-selling 2023 cookbook, Cook It Up: Bold Moves for Family Foods (with her daughter, Ava Clark), says that her Easters were more subdued—though of course food was involved.

“It’s funny, because my dad was always this way or that way about Easter, but my mom was always super gung-ho,” Alex says about her late mother, acclaimed cookbook author Maria Guarnaschelli. Alex says that her Easter would start off with egg dying, then her mother would make lamb, pizza rustica, and fava beans as the first sign of spring. “She was really into the symbolism of food and ingredients, so it’s a big core food memory for me that I associate with my mother on Easter.”

This Easter, the perpetually busy chef and TV personality will spend the day with her daughter, Ava, and friends on Long Island. Alex says she honors her mother’s memory by adding fava beans to one of her daughter’s favorite ingredients, octopus, to bridge family Easter traditions. She adds that she and her daughter will cook together, a favorite activity, especially after the success of their cookbook, as part of a “somewhat organized potluck.”

The holiday will come as a welcome break for Guarnaschelli. She recently wrapped filming season 2 of her Food Network competition series, Ciao House, with her co-host, Gabriele Bertaccini. The first season, shot in a Tuscan villa, featured lots of memorable Italian cooking and the requisite cooking show drama. The air dates have yet to be announced for season tw and details are scarce, but she tells Appetito that the setting this time is Puglia.

“I fell in love with Puglia,” she says. “The gelato was ridiculous. And the bread baking, which was even better than Tuscany. I mean, it’s Italy—you turn the corner and there’s something else fabulous.”

With that, Guarnaschelli signs off for now, but not without leaving us with six recipes for great side dishes and salads to serve at Easter (or anytime this spring), whether it’s for a small family celebration or a big gathering —just double or triple the measurements as needed.

Recipes courtesy of Alex Guarnaschelli

Arugula and Strawberry Salad

Every year, the Bishop family of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, New York, has a picnic shindig on their front lawn. One year, a bunch of us chefs sat in awe as Rick Bishop drove us around the property and pointed out all of the wondrous things growing there. He had twenty-four types of potatoes growing last time I checked. The real revelation? The salad. I am not one who likes to put things like strawberries in salad. To me they belong in ice creams, shortcakes, and tarts. This salad changed my mind. With arugula, this dressing, and the poppy seeds, another side of strawberries comes out to play. They are green tasting, almost grassy, and their seeds combine with the poppy seeds to create a great texture. Serves 4

INGREDIENTS:

Dressing:

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon canola oil

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Salad:

1 generous pint of fresh strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise

A sprinkle of poppy seeds

2 cups arugula leaves

STEPS:

1. Make the dressing: In a large bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sherry vinegar, and honey. Whisk in the olive oil, canola oil, and salt.

2. Assemble the salad: Toss the strawberries and poppy seeds in the dressing. Add the arugula and gently mix. Serve immediately.


Carrot Soup

This is one of those recipes that is surprisingly easy to make and fills the house with a great aroma. I love how meaty and satisfying it feels to cook and eat this! It sneaks up on you. It’s the fresh ginger and the pureed sweet potatoes that add surprising body and a slight zing. I like to puree it smooth but sometimes I blend only half and leave the other half chunky and mix them. Either way, this soup is also great as a leftover.

INGREDIENTS:

2 small sweet potatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 sprig rosemary

2 bay leaves

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound medium carrots, cut into thin rounds

3 medium garlic cloves, halved

6 tablespoons fresh chopped ginger

3 - 4 cups water

2 cups orange juice

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon honey

1 cup heavy cream

 STEPS:

1. Cook the sweet potatoes: Preheat oven to 375ºF. Place the sweet potatoes in the center of the oven and bake for about 1 hour or until completely tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.

2. Make the soup: Meanwhile, in a medium-size pot, add the olive oil and the onions. Add the fresh thyme, rosemary and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. “Sweat” the onions for 5-8 minutes until they become translucent. Add the carrots and garlic and stir to blend. Season with additional salt and pepper. Add half of the ginger, 3 cups of the water and the orange juice. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are tender, 30-45 minutes. Note: If water cooks down and there isn’t sufficient liquid, add 1-2 additional cups of water. By the time the carrots are tender, you want at least 2 cups liquid to remain.

3. Finish the sweet potatoes: Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven. Place them on a flat surface and split them down the middle lengthwise. Scoop out the flesh into a bowl.

4. Finish the soup: Whisk the sweet potatoes into the carrot mixture. Whisk in the butter, honey, remaining ginger and cream. Remove and discard the thyme, rosemary and bay leaves. Puree the mixture in the blender until smooth. Serve immediately.


Mashed & Oven-Dried Sweet Potatoes

INGREDIENTS:

2 pounds medium sweet potatoes (about 5), scrubbed clean and dried with a kitchen towel

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons orange juice, not freshly squeezed

1 ½ tablespoons sherry vinegar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (optional)

STEPS:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Cook the sweet potatoes: Put the potatoes right on the oven rack. No foil. No baking sheet. This will allow the oven heat to circulate more freely around the potatoes as they cook. Put a layer of foil on the floor of the oven to avoid messy cleanup. Roast until the potatoes are completely yielding in the center when pierced with the tip of a knife, 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 300ºF.

3. Mash the sweet potatoes: Use a sharp knife to cut lengthwise down the middle of each sweet potato. Scoop out the flesh with a tablespoon, leaving the skin behind. Transfer the flesh to a food processor and pulse to blend until smooth. Do not overblend or it will make the potatoes gummy. Put the potato in a medium ovenproof dish. Spread it out in an even later.

4. Bake the sweet potatoes: Once the oven registers 300°F, bake the sweet potatoes for 10 minutes and then give the flesh a stir again. Bake for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven. Transfer the sweet potato flesh to a medium bowl and season with salt. Stir in some of the orange juice, the sherry vinegar, and butter, if using. Taste of seasoning. Add more orange juice, if needed.



Pea Salad with Tarragon and Pea Shoots

I used to buy a lot of different baby greens from the market and make a huge mix to sprinkle on most of my dishes at the restaurant. I felt as if it added that fresh element that so much food needs. Now I like to add just one green, a single clear flavor, to make a statement. Pea shoots have always been one of my favorites because they make peas, frozen or fresh, taste like an amplified, improved version of themselves. They take peas from coach to business class, and the dressing upgrades them all the way to first. The sugar in the cooking water and on the peas themselves also intensifies flavor while the mustard adds a little bite. I like to use superfine sugar because it dissolves easily. Don’t freak out if you can’t find every type of pea; a few different types will do just fine. Serves 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS:

Dressing:

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Juice of ½ lemon

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

½ teaspoon capers, roughly chopped, plus 1 teaspoon of their brine

Kosher salt and white pepper

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

8 sprigs fresh tarragon, leaves chopped

Peas:

Kosher salt

Sugar

¾ pound sugar snap peas, ends trimmed

¾ pound snow peas, ends trimmed

1 cup shelled peas

White pepper

¼ cup pea shoots

STEPS:

1. Make the dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, and vinegar. Add the capers and brine, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil and add the tarragon. Taste for seasoning.

2. Cook the peas: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare an ice bath: Fill a large bowl halfway with ice cubes and add some cold water. Set a colander squarely inside the ice bath. The colander will keep you from having to pick ice out of the peas later. Add salt to the boiling water until it tastes like seawater. Add a generous pinch of sugar. Add the sugar snap peas and cook until bright green and crisp-tender, 2 minutes. Use a strainer to remove the peas from the water and transfer them to the colander inside the ice bath.

3. Bring the water back up to a boil and add the snow peas and shelled peas. Cook until they float back to the surface, 1 minute. Use the strainer to remove the peas and plunge them into the ice bath with the sugar snaps. Allow them to sit in the ice water for a couple of minutes to ensure they have cooled thoroughly.

4. Lift up the colander to drain the peas and then spread them out on a kitchen towel. Use another kitchen towel to gently pat them dry and then let them air-dry. Water on the peas will dilute all of the good flavors.

5. Serve the salad: Transfer the peas to a medium bowl and season with salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of sugar. Stir to blend. Toss with the dressing and pea shoots. Taste for seasoning. Serve immediately.


Roasted Brussels Sprouts

I innocently put a side of Brussels sprouts on the menu when I opened The Darby. I thought we would sell a few here and there to the few people who don’t go for the crispy potatoes or the baked macaroni. The preparation is simple enough. In fact, when I cooked them for the first time, I worried they needed more. I ate Brussels sprouts in various restaurants around the city and found that they often (and rightfully) get drowned in bacon or maple syrup. Delicious. But not what I wanted. This recipe is all about texture. The crispy leaves on top almost taste like dried seaweed to me, making this a great companion for any fish dish. Serves 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS:

1½ pounds Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

Kosher salt

1 quart canola oil

¼ cup reduced balsamic vinegar (see Tip)

STEPS:

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

2. Cook the Brussels sprouts: Trim the end of each Brussels sprout so that the first few layers of leaves come off easily. Peel away a couple layers of leaves. Set those leaves aside in a large bowl. Halve each remaining sprout lengthwise. Put the Brussels sprout halves in a bowl and toss them together with the olive oil and a couple pinches of salt. Put the nutmeg in a fine mesh strainer and dust the Brussels sprouts evenly with it. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Put a baking dish in the lower part of the oven and fill it with an inch or so of water. This will create some steam as the Brussels sprouts cook. The combination of the steam from the water and the dry heat from the oven will give your Brussels sprouts a more intense flavor and texture. Cook the Brussels sprouts until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste one and season with salt as needed.

3. Fry the Brussels sprout leaves: In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pot (or deepfryer), heat the canola oil slowly to 375ºF. Line a baking sheet with a kitchen towel to drain the leaves. Drop a small batch of the leaves in the oil (watch out, the oil will spatter and bubble up; wear a long oven mitt and hold the pot cover loosely over the pot to use as a shield). Fry the leaves until crisp, 30 to 60 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the leaves to the baking sheet to drain. Season immediately with salt so it sticks to the leaves while they’re hot. Repeat until all of the leaves are fried. (Go ahead. Taste one. Aren’t those leaves good? I have served these on their own as a snack like potato chips.)

4. Finish the dish: Remove the Brussels sprouts from the oven, season to taste with salt, and drizzle with a little bit of the reduced balsamic vinegar to taste. Arrange on a platter and top with the fried leaves. Serve immediately.

Old-School Tip

There is nothing like aged balsamic vinegar. When you think about vinegar sitting for that many years before we enjoy it, it’s as amazing as a fine wine. The taste is one thing, but you also get that wonderful syrupy texture. But boy is it expensive! So let’s go rogue for a minute: Pour 1 cup regular balsamic vinegar into a saucepan and slowly simmer over low heat to reduce it until it is about ¼ cup or until it holds a line when drizzled on a plate. Be careful because it will go from syrup to burned vinegar quickly. So watch it. Immediately transfer it to a bowl to cool so it stops cooking and doesn’t reduce too much or burn.


Yellow Cake With Spring Fruits

I love raspberries and blackberries for this cake. They are so tart and pleasantly seedy. They really make me feel like summer strawberries and watermelon are just around the corner…If you find some other fruits that really are fantastic, feel free to change the fruit profile of this dessert. It’s an old school cake with some chocolate and a goopy frosting that has a lightness I associate with the spring months.

INGREDIENTS:

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus additional for greasing the inside of the cake pan

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¾ teaspoon baking powder

21/2 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

1 egg

¾ cup semi sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces

2 pints fresh raspberries

1 pint blackberries

EQUIPMENT:

1 8x2 inch round pan

STEPS:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Liberally grease the bottom and sides of the cake pan.

2.  Make the batter: In a medium bowl, sift together the baking soda, salt, baking powder and flour. In another medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, vanilla, sour cream and the egg. Stir in the butter and chocolate. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the flour mixture and melted butter. Do not over mix. Once flour is added to a batter, over mixing toughens the resulting cake.

3.  Finish and serve the cake: Transfer the batter to the greased pan. Gently tap the sides of the pan so the batter is evenly distributed. Place the pan in the center of the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. Use a knife to scrape around the sides of the pan and invert the cake from the pan onto a serving plate.

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