Melissa Elsmo

April dinner parties are decidedly feminine affairs in my book and each year I gather some of my favorite ladies to welcome the new season with a meal we affectionately refer to as “the spring hat dinner.” What started out as a casual dinner party invitation organically grew to feature a multiple course meal with a firm dress code requiring each guest to wear a hat. While some of the hats my guests wear are surprisingly elaborate, the menus at the spring hat dinner are always a flavorful and simplistic celebration of the season.

As playful crocuses and sunny daffodils begin showing their bright faces in spring, my thoughts naturally turn toward tender artichokes, vibrant berries and lush asparagus. As days grow longer, seasonal produce becomes more diverse by the day and celebrating the bounty of the season calls for quick cooking meats and fish to replace the long and complex braised dishes of winter.

Without a burgeoning array of seasonal produce to rely on winter entertaining tethers the most adept cooks to the kitchen. In the spring, long ingredient lists and extensive cooking times give way to an abundance of quick or no-cook dinner party menu options. Even without requiring guests to wear hats, spring entertaining means gathering friends around a table laden with hyacinths, lilacs, and tulips to enjoy freshly-flavored dishes like citrus spiked baby lamb chops with asparagus and burrata cheese.

High quality and often expensive ingredients, like rack of lamb, asparagus, and buratta cheese are powerful weapons in any dinner party arsenal because they require few embellishments to make them taste delicious. An upfront investment means saving a little money in the end because an eager cook needs nothing more than few herbs, some garlic cloves, and a single citrus fruit to make a magical meal.

Gremolata, a garnish commonly associated with a braised veal dish called Ossobuco, is traditionally comprised of lemon zest, parsley and garlic. My spring inspired version, featuring mint and pink grapefruit zest, provides a savory element on the plate and eliminates the need to whip up a time consuming sauce. With the gremolata assembled, this elegant dinner will be on the table in the time it takes a brief April shower to roll through town.

Round out this memorable meal with nothing more than an easy arugula salad tossed with a piquant lemon vinaigrette and flutes filled with chilled Italian Prosecco. So put on your favorite hat and wait for the compliments to start rolling in. Happy spring!

Spring Lamb with Grapefruit Gemolata, Burrata and Asparagus (four servings)

Use the crostini as a vehicle for eating the burrata and grapefruit component of this well-rounded seasonal dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1/8 Cup grapefruit zest, minced
  • ¼ Cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 8-bone rack of lamb, well-trimmed and cut into single chops
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 pound asparagus, woody stems removed
  • 1 8-ounce orb of burrata cheese or 6 oz of hand dipped ricotta
  • Crostini for serving

Directions:

To make the gremolata, combine the grapefruit zest, parsley, mint and garlic in a small bowl. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Mix well and moisten with the olive oil. Set the gremolata aside. Peel the zested grapefruit and remove the fruit in sections. Set aside. Gremolata can be made one day ahead and refrigerated. Allow to come to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Heat grill or grill pan until very hot and oil the grates. Season the lamb chops with salt and pepper. Sear the lamb chops for 3 minutes per side until medium rare (cook longer if you prefer your meat well-done). Set aside and allow to rest.

Drop the asparagus into the boiling water and season with salt. Allow to cook for 3 minutes or until just crisp tender, drain and season with salt.

To serve: Place a dollop of burrata or ricotta on a plate. Season the cheese with black pepper and top with the grapefruit sections. Lay the asparagus alongside the cheese and cross two lamb chops over vegetables. Sprinkle the gremolata onto the lamb chops and serve the crostini alongside the cheese.

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