Foodwise, Easter is a weird holiday for me. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that some people have fairly defined Easter traditions, special foods that signify the religious season: an Easter lamb, various breads-with-eggs-in-them, lambs sculpted out of butter, lamb-shaped cakes (and a wealth of other lamb-shaped and lamb-containing dishes, I’m sure; no sense messing with a good piece of symbolism). Our family, and pretty much every family I knew where I was from, had a brown sugar-glazed spiral-cut ham. OK, fair enough, and I like ham. But past that, it was a bit of a mystery what you were supposed to serve for an Easter dinner. And this is a bit of a problem, because it’s a major feastday, so there should be a feast… right? With festive foods? But if there were any traditional foodways I was supposed to have received, they got lost somewhere between here and Ellis Island.
And so when I go to our traditional chosen-family Easter dinner here in town, I’m always at a bit of a loss as to what to bring. It is, fortunately, a pretty informal affair — the majority of us don’t even celebrate the religious holiday, and we’re all fairly adventurous in our tastes, so it’s forgiving. But that almost makes it worse: the problem of too-many-choices is magnified. Traditional Southern biscuits would certainly fly, but so would spicy jicama ribbons, or a tofu salad. Where to begin?
And so I let my creativity be guided by other exigencies, namely, who doesn’t eat what. If ever you are in a cooking rut, try cooking for somebody on a restricted diet: it’s a real engine for invention. The biggest changes in my diet occurred when I started dating a vegetarian — I don’t necessarily advocate screening all the true omnivores out of your dating pool, but it’s an idea! In the case of this dish, I let myself be guided by a friend in attendance who can’t eat gluten, dairy, onions, or tree nuts.
Our hosts had mentioned that they’d appreciate a grainy/starchy dish, and potatoes were already taken, so obviously I thought of broccoli. I realize, of course, that broccoli isn’t a starch, but at this point in early spring when the asparagus isn’t in yet, I just revert to broccoli without thinking. We all have our crutches. And I do love a good broccoli slaw, so I started there. No onion possible, which kicks out my usual go-to quick-pickled red onions, but I could put a nice fat clove’s worth of pureed garlic in the dressing! And that dressing… well, I usually go with a mayo and yogurt combo, but a little tub of coconut yogurt could stand in. Walnuts are my instinct, since they go so well with cranberries, but some pepitas could bring a little rich crunch, and being pumpkin seeds wouldn’t result in injury. All that was left was that pesky grain business, and steel-cut oats would serve as a chewy gluten-free addition.
And I’ll be honest: the first attempt was sort of meh. (Sorry, fellow Easter feasters.) It looked nice enough for the pictures on this page, but it ended up a little waterlogged and flavorless. But the second batch, the one I made late last night to retest the recipe and just ate absentmindedly out of the tub while contemplating this closing paragraph? SO GOOD. I think I like it even better than a basic broccoli slaw, which is high praise coming from me. The oats and garlicky dressing make a fantastic nutty backbone, the pepitas and cranberries are a combination I’m sure I’ll be coming back to, and the broccoli is crisp-tender and bright-green like the spring. Happy spring, folks.
Garlicky oat and broccoli salad
This recipe came about because I was avoiding a number of food allergies, and I’m so grateful for that nudge: it’s a great success. Look at this list of qualifications: halfway between a vegetable side and a grain salad, so it can fill a lot of menu niches; adaptable to respond to many different sorts of dietary needs; richly flavored, but neutral enough to fit with many more particular flavors. I’m pretty sure I’ll be eating this all through summer.
1 lb broccoli crowns
1 c steel-cut oats (check the package for gluten-free certification if that’s a concern)
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 clove garlic
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c raw pepitas
1/4 c dried cranberries
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
While the water is coming to the boil, break down broccoli into bitesize floretlets. Once the water is boiling, blanch broccoli for three minutes, then scoop it out with a slotted spoon and rinse in cold water, then drain thoroughly.
Return the pot of salted water to the boil and add the oats. Boil until tender — check at 8 minutes, but it may take another minute or two.
While the oats are boiling, mash the garlic with a big pinch of salt, using a chef’s knife — see how Jacques Pépin does it. (Alternately, use a garlic press and add the pinch of salt to the sauce in the next step.)
Combine mashed garlic, yogurt, mayonnaise, sugar, lemon juice, and plenty of black pepper. Toss with the cooked broccoli, cranberries, and pepitas.
Once the oats are tender, strain them through a fine-mesh strainer and run under cold water till cool. Wring out the oats to remove as much water as possible — you can just grab handfuls and squeeze, or you can gather it all in a tea towel and wring it that way — then add the wrung oats to the broccoli mixture and toss to combine.
Taste and add more salt if it needs it, and serve at room temperature.
If you’d like to make this dairy-free, you can sub in a non-dairy yogurt; I had great success with coconut milk yogurt. Many non-dairy yogurts are rather sweet, so you may want to omit the added sugar; you can always add a pinch later if you think it needs it.
At the moment we’re still a few weeks away from the first asparagus where I live, but asparagus would be great here! One big bunch should do it.
Different grains could swap in well here, too: quinoa, bulgur, brown rice, even millet. All of these will need different cooking times, so check packages/internet sources.