It's spring and already the days are longer and brighter, the vegetables sweeter and greener. Time, in other words, for gorgeous, unfussy dinner parties with our friends.
The kind of dinners where we lose track of time and open more bottles of wine than we intended.
With visions of that perfect spring get-together, we came up with this mellow menu:
Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with pounded herbs and green garlic
Baby artichokes with toasted hazelnuts and green olives
Crispy potatoes with saffron aioli
Gem lettuce with crème fraîche, breakfast radishes and toasted breadcrumbs
Almond cake with macerated strawberries and cardamom cream
The centerpiece is a big, beautiful hunk of lamb. But instead of searing the meat and making a hot mess on the stovetop, we slide it into a pool of white wine, chicken stock and aromatics and let it relax in a low, slow oven.
The lamb gets tender and infused all the way through with flavor. It doesn't need much to shine, just a spoonful of fresh herbs, pounded into a thick, bright green sauce that glistens with olive oil.
On the side: some baby artichokes snug under a blanket of green olives and hazelnuts; fingerling potatoes, halved and crisped in a pan, with bright saffron aioli; and a salad made with the sweetest, most tender gem lettuce leaves.
For dessert, we suggest the O.G. of almond cakes, a riff on an old Chez Panisse recipe. Bake it the day before if you like, then add some dollops of cream seasoned with cardamom and some fresh strawberries macerated in a bit of sugar.
And after dessert, who knows? It's spring! Anything is possible.
We know lamb usually calls for a robust, spicy red, but that's not the case when it comes to the mellow showstopper at the center of our spring menu. In fact, our slow-cooked lamb shoulder finds a much better match in a full-bodied, lightly oaked Chardonnay, like the 2011 Cabreo Chardonnay Toscana La Pietra ($20). It might sound like a surprising choice, but trust us: This Tuscan white has the backbone to stand up to the lamb's deeper, meatier flavors. It also has the acidity to match the bright, green notes of the artichokes and pounded herb sauce.