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An Easter picnic in Santa Barbara wine country

An Easter picnic in Santa Barbara wine country – includes recipes

Christine Weber Hale

Three generations of a vintner’s family gather for an egg hunt and an informal feast of their favorite Greek foods

What to serve for easter dinner is never a difficult question for Kate and Brooks Firestone, owners of Firestone Vineyards and Carey Cellars in Santa Barbara County. Their family’s traditional Greek-themed meal holds strong sentimental value.

The Firestones’ interest in the Greek Easter celebration began years ago on their honeymoon when, unknowingly, they arrived in Greece just in time for the Greek Orthodox Easter, which is usually celebrated later than Easter in Western churches. The unexpected experience of this festive religious holiday resulted in an enduring fondness for the country, the people, and the cuisine, and they return to Greece as often as possible.

Now settled in the picturesque Santa Inez Valley near Solvang, the Firestones still favor Greek cooking – and their children and grandchildren have come to love it as well. Kate’s Easter menu is, for the most part, traditional, but she has made a few adjustments in flavors and ingredients to take advantage of the local produce and, of course, the Firestones’ own wines.

Their feast begins with dolmas – grape leaves wrapped around a mixture of rice, onions, ground beef, and herbs – with an accompanying sauce of yogurt, lemon juice, peel, and a little sugar. Kate makes her own dolmas, but purchased ones are quite good and much less work if you’re pressed for time. Look for them (canned or loose) in gourmet stores, Middle Eastern markets, well-stocked supermarkets, and delicatessens.

Barbecued butterflied leg of lamb takes center stage on the Firestones’ Easter table. Kate studs the meat with garlic slices and rosemary pieces, then marinates it in a red wine – brown sugar mixture before grilling. To accompany the lamb, she mixes cooked orzo with chopped tomatoes, fresh mint, and lemon juice. Steamed spring vegetables – often pencil-thin asparagus or young green beans – and a salad of romaine (about 1 1/2 cups per serving), sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, thinly sliced red onions, crumbled feta cheese, and pitted kalamata olives, also grace the table. (Dress the salad with your favorite homemade or purchased vinaigrette dressing.)

Bunches of spring flowers and a Greek Easter bread (tsoureki) often serve as a table centerpiece. Kate shapes this slightly sweet egg bread as they do in Greece, as a braided ring studded with red-dyed hard-cooked eggs (the dyed eggs symbolize Christ’s blood).

The Firestones end the meal with a typical Greek dessert – a dense nut cake soaked with a spiked honey syrup. Serve small pieces with scoops of lemon sorbet or vanilla ice cream.

The menu offers great serving versatility. It can be a formal sit-down affair, a buffet, or – the Firestones’ favorite – a picnic in the field or in a charming old barn on their property.

Grilled Lamb with Garlic and Rosemary

Cooking time: About 40 minutes

Prep time: About 25 minutes, plus at least 2 hours marinating time

Makes: 14 to 16 servings

1 leg of lamb (about 5 lb.), boned and butterflied 1 to 2 ounces rosemary sprigs, plus additional sprigs for garnish 4 to 5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 1 1/2 cups dry red wine 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1. Trim off and discard any surface fat on meat. Lay lamb boned side up. With a small sharp knife, make small slashes (1 inch long, 1/2 inch deep) all over meat surface. Cut the rosemary sprigs into 1-inch pieces. Tuck a rosemary piece and garlic slice evenly into each slash.

2. In a deep noncorrodible bowl or 2-gallon heavy-plastic food bag, mix wine, sugar, soy sauce, and mustard. Add lamb, and turn to coat evenly, being careful that garlic and rosemary remain in slashes. Cover or seal, and chill, turning occasionally, at least 2 hours or up to 1 day.

3. To prepare barbecue, ignite 60 charcoal briquets in a barbecue with a lid. When the coals are mostly covered with gray ash (about 30 minutes), push equal portions to opposite sides of the firegrate; place a drip pan in the center. To maintain temperature, add 6 briquets to each side. (Or turn gas barbecue on high, and heat, covered, for 10 minutes, then adjust for indirect cooking.) Place a lightly oiled grill 5 to 6 inches above the coals.

4. Lay lamb on grill; reserve marinade. Brush meat with half the reserved marinade.

5. Cover barbecue (open vents for charcoal). Cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of meat registers 140 [degrees], about 40 minutes. Brush halfway through with remaining marinade.

6. Transfer meat to a carving board. Garnish with additional rosemary sprigs. Cut into thin slices to serve.

Per serving: 156 cal., 31% (49 cal.) from fat; 19 g protein; 5.4 g fat (1.9 g sat.); 6.2 g carbo.; 115 mg sodium; 61 mg chol.

Orzo with Mint and Tomatoes

Cooking time: About 15 minutes

Prep time: About 20 minutes

Notes: You can saute the onions and cook the pasta up to 1 day ahead, but chop the mint, which turns black when it sits, just before serving and add with tomatoes. If pasta mixture seems dry, add more broth, 1/4 cup at a time, until mixture is as moist as desired.

Makes: 10 servings

2 onions (about 1 lb. total), chopped 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 cups orzo pasta About 1/2 cup chicken broth 1/3 cup lemon juice 1/4 cup minced parsley 2 tomatoes (about 1 lb. total), cored, seeded, and chopped 1/2 cup minced fresh mint leaves, plus mint sprigs for garnish Salt and pepper

1. Combine onions and oil in a 10- to 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. Stir often until onions are browned and taste sweet, about 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook the orzo in 2 quarts boiling water until tender to bite, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water until the pasta is cool, then drain again.

3. In a large bowl, mix together cool cooked orzo, chopped onions, 1/2 cup broth, lemon juice, and minced parsley. (If making ahead, chill mixture airtight up to 1 day.) Add tomatoes and mint just before serving. Garnish with mint sprigs, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Per serving: 276 cal., 13% (36 cal.) from fat; 8.8 g protein; 4 g fat (0.6 g sat.); 51 g carbo.; 17 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.

Greek Easter Bread (Tsoureki)

Cooking time: About 30 minutes

Prep time: About 40 minutes, plus 1 1/2 hours rising time

Notes: This bread is also delicious for breakfast (you may want to increase the sugar to 1/2 cup). If you don’t want to bother to braid the bread, simply divide the kneaded dough between two greased 5- by 9-inch loaf pans; omit hard-cooked eggs.

Makes: 10 servings

1 cup milk 1/3 cup butter or margarine 1/4 cup sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons (2 packages) active dry yeast 4 large eggs 1/4 cup orange juice 1 tablespoon grated orange peel 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 4 hard-cooked eggs, dyed red, unpeeled (optional) 2 tablespoons sesame seed

1. Heat the milk and butter over low heat or in a microwave until the mixture reaches 110 [degrees]. In a large bowl, combine the warm milk mixture with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the milk; let stand until yeast softens, about 5 minutes.

2. Add remaining sugar, 3 eggs, orange juice, peel, salt, and 2 cups flour. Beat with a mixer at medium speed until dough is well blended. Stir in remaining flour.

3. To knead with a dough hook, beat at high speed until dough is smooth, shiny, and stretchy, 10 to 15 minutes. To knead by hand, scrape dough onto a well-floured board. Knead until very smooth and elastic, adding just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to the board, at least 10 to 15 minutes. Dough will be sticky. Let dough rise, lightly covered, in the mixing bowl in a warm place until doubled, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

4. Transfer dough to a lightly floured board, and knead briefly to expel air. Divide dough into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion of dough into a rope about 20 inches long. Braid the ropes together, then bring the ends together to form a ring, pinching ends to join smoothly. Transfer the loaf to a lightly buttered baking sheet. Press dyed hard-cooked eggs into dough, spacing equally around the ring.

5. Lightly cover loaf with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until puffy, about 30 minutes. Beat remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water to blend; brush half over loaf. Bake loaf at 375 [degrees] for 20 minutes; brush with remaining egg mixture, sprinkle with sesame seed, and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes longer. Transfer bread to a rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. If making ahead, cool, wrap airtight, and store at room temperature up to I day. Reheat, covered with foil, on a baking sheet in a 300 [degrees] oven until warm to touch. (Hard-cooked eggs are not intended for eating).

Per serving: 351 cal., 28% (99 cal.) from fat; 10 g protein; 11 g fat (5.3 g sat.); 52 g carbo.; 215 mg sodium; 106 mg chol.

Honey-Nut Cake

Cooking time: About 30 minutes

Prep time: About 30 minutes, plus cooling time

Makes: 30 servings

2 cups blanched almonds 1 cup walnuts 2 ounces plain biscotti or zwieback, coarsely broken 1 tablespoon grated orange peel 6 large eggs, separated 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 cinnamon stick (2 to 3 in.) 1/4 cup Cognac or brandy Lemon sorbet or vanilla ice cream (optional) Mint sprigs (optional)

1. In a food processor or blender, combine almonds, walnuts, biscotti, and orange peel. Whirl, in batches if necessary, until finely ground. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar and vanilla until thick. Stir nut mixture into yolks.

2. In another bowl with clean beaters, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until soft, moist peaks form. Gently fold whites into the nut mixture until just blended. Spoon into a buttered 9- by 13-inch pan; spread top smooth.

3. Bake in a 350 [degrees] oven until cake is brown and springs back when gently pressed in center, about 30 minutes.

4. While cake bakes, combine 2 cups water, remaining sugar, honey, lemon juice, and cinnamon stick in a 3- to 4-quart pan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Cognac.

5. Slowly pour the syrup over the cake until all is absorbed. Cool completely. If making ahead, wrap airtight and store at room temperature up to 2 days. To serve, cut into small diamonds or triangles and accompany with sorbet or ice cream. Garnish with mint sprigs.

Per serving: 155 cal., 51% (79 cal.) from fat; 4 g protein; 8.8 g fat (1.2 g sat.); 15 g carbo.; 20 mg sodium; 43 mg chol.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group