The drizzle and sometimes grey sky of winter is fading behind us, mirroring an ebb tide, retreating into the distance. Left in the tide’s wake are all sorts of ocean going creatures who take this twice daily break as an opportunity to hunt for food or doze in the pools. The turn of the season is similar to this. The first of the spring flowers peek their stems and heads above the ground as the weather warms up, only to retreat a little when a final winter blast streaks across the sky.
Then, as the days lengthen, the garden picks up steam. Shoots sprout; pea’s spring; their tentacles curl on climbing frames. Pods grow and ripen. Spring showers nurture the soil where the raw materials for culinary marvels dwell. There are fronds of fresh fennel, sweet green garlic bulbs, a sudden bloom of morel mushrooms and the fruit trees fill with blossom. Meandering through an early spring garden one senses the New Year’s crop emerging from the earth. Long dormant plants have pushed their way into the fresh air. Tulips dance in the wind. A pot of daffodils in the kitchen brings a ray of sunlight, that fresh clear sunlight that is an echo of the new season.
The spring garden yields some of the great treasures of the kitchen, amongst them white asparagus. There are a few passionate gardeners who will tend these fragile stems, carefully mounding the earth around their stalks as they grow, ensuring that they never see daylight, thus preserving their pale creamy colour. As much as I love growing fruits and vegetables I admit that I have never mastered this one. However, coming across them in a local farmer’s field was a revelation – akin to discovering a hidden, precious gem.
Asparagus, a royal treat, has grown in Europe and Egypt for more than two thousand years. The green variety graced the tables of roman emperors and was a particular favorite of The Roi Soleil, King Louis XIV. White asparagus made its first appearance in France in the mid-1600’s and has become a specialty of many European cuisines, particularly in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, where it is served in myriad ways. I have always felt that the simpler the better – with vinaigrette perhaps, warm butter or a light herb sauce which compliments the delicate flavor of this vegetable.
Hanging above the delicate rows of asparagus in this nascent garden, a harvest of fava beans and spring peas waits to be plucked from their bright pods. These hidden, tiny orbs - a riot of vibrant greens - married in a zesty and crisp salad, are the perfect compliment to a dish that evokes the season: Spring Lamb. The latter is now a misnomer, as lamb is now available year round due to the advances (if one wishes to call it that) in animal husbandry and yet few dishes are as tied to a season as lamb.
Lamb dishes are steeped in centuries of culinary traditions, notably as a central part of Easter celebrations. However, predating Christian customs, lamb served at this time of year has its origins in the Jewish faith where it is one of the traditional foods served during the Passover Seder. My family has a penchant for lamb and it has always featured as the main course of our Easter repasts, usually in the form of a leg of lamb, often served with a dish of flageolet beans. This was and is a hearty dish that complimented the often freezing weather that occurred as we celebrated the spring holidays in France. Our milder Californian climate called for a lighter touch, hence the salad and the fava beans are a tender tribute to the flageolet.
If my savory taste buds are captivated by white asparagus and fava beans in this embryonic season, then the sweet ones are enthralled with a fruit whose season is, alas, far too short. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote “Spring has returned. The earth is like a child that knows poems”. I like to think that earth’s poetry is perfectly encapsulated in this fruit. Its pale pink and milky white blossoms are one of the first to emerge in our springtime gardens. It is a floral hint of the treats to come. It is the simple apricot. Yet these small golden-orange spheres offer a plethora of gustatory choices. Eaten freshly picked off the tree is a delight, particularly when perfectly ripe. They are juicy, succulent, tender and sweet. They can be poached, roasted, dried and made into preserves. My admiration for all things connected with apricots stems from my grandmother’s garden in the French Alps. She had half a dozen apricot trees, which bore a staggering number of fruit, all dutifully turned into compotes and jams.
The children of the house hauled the laden baskets up from the garden and into her kitchen. Preparing the fruit for apricot jam was an all day project and we usually ended the day with sticky fingers, a smile on our faces and the promise of her apricot clafoutis for dessert. We would also ceremoniously carry back to London (where we lived at the time) two jars of this extraordinary jam – truly the essence of apricots, captured in a glistening amber-hued mélange that was her trademark. We made it last for as long as we could, for it would be months before we could get our hands on any more.
Years passed and I began making my own jams. Frustrated by my inability to recreate the flavor she had in her preserves, I scoured many a farmers market to find organically grown fruit that were similar in taste and fragrance to hers. I am delighted to say that our local markets have a wealth of apricot growers who will flood our tables with these precious gems and whose fruit make wonderful preserves. However don’t wait too long - as implied by its name, Apricot, means early-ripening or precocious stemming from the Latin word praecoquus - or the season will be over!
WHITE ASPARAGUS WITH A HERBED MOUSSELINE SAUCE
Serves 8 people
2 lbs white asparagus - bottom half of the stems peeled and trimmed
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Large pinch salt
10 oz butter - clarified
1/2 bunch parsley - finely chopped
1/2 bunch dill - finely chopped
4 tablespoons crème fraiche
Note: White asparagus need to have their stalks peeled. However, as the stalks break easily, the easiest way to do this is to place them on your work surface with the tips facing towards you. Then using a vegetable peeler, peel the stalks, starting about 2 inches from the tip, making sure you hold the asparagus flat on the surface as you work.
Sidebar: The Fairview Gardens is one of the few local places to find white asparagus. Visit their 12 ½ acre organic farm on Fairview Avenue in Goleta, walk amongst the scented rows of vegetables and admire the handiwork of their farmers as they tend these tender shoots. Open for self guided tours daily from 10am until sunset. For more information visit their website: www.fairviewgardens.org or Tel (805) 967 7369.
HERB CRUSTED, ROASTED RACKS OF LAMB
Serves 8 people
2 racks of lamb, Frenched if possible or trimmed of almost all the fat
4 cloves garlic - crushed
1½ tablespoons coarse salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup fresh rosemary – chopped
¼ cup thyme – chopped
½ glass red wine
2 tablespoons cold butter
Sidebar: Although sheep have been bred for thousands of years, from their origins in Central Asia, their arrival in North America dates back only to the time of Cortez in 1519. Sheep later became a central part of many of the Californian Missions, raised not just for their meat, but also their wool. Over the last 2 decades small scale sheep farmers have had an increasingly difficult time running viable businesses due to the influx of less expensive New Zealand and Australian Lamb and combating predators.
However some smaller, organic, natural farms have managed to carve out a niche market, supplying a small but growing clientele of restaurateurs and gourmets eager to have naturally, locally-raised, hormone-free meat. Amongst those who have a particularly delicate product are Lance and Gay Columbel, owners of the 150 year old James Ranch in Penn Valley, California. Located on 200 acres of green rolling pastures north of Sacramento this family has dedicated itself to raising sheep in the most natural manner possible. The sheep graze on apples, pears, figs, blackberries and wild roses as well as summer and winter grasses and their herbaceous flavored lamb is coveted by many chefs. Information about the farm and their products can be found on their website at www.thejamesranch.com or by calling (530) 432 3306
SPRING PEA AND FAVA BEAN SALAD
Serves 8 people
Zest of 1 lemon
1 lb spring peas – shelled
3 lbs Fava Beans (once shelled, this will yield about 2 – 2½ cups – see note)
4 stems green onions – thinly sliced
1 Granny Smith apple – cored and diced
1/3 cup fresh mint leaves – thinly sliced
¼ cup fresh dill – chopped
4 inch long piece Daikon radish – diced
Freshly ground pepper
Lemon juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
Note: Fava beans need to be shelled twice. Do not let this put you off as the end result is worth the extra effort. First pop them out of their long pods by running your thumb down the length of the seam. Check the pods before hand to make sure that they are indeed filled with beans. They can sometimes be half full. The beans have a pale green membrane that also needs to be peeled. You can either do this with a small paring knife or plunge the beans into a large pot of boiling water 45 seconds, remove them from the water and then use your fingers to ease them out of the second shell.
APRICOTS IN BAUMES DE VENISE
Serves 8 people
1 vanilla bean – split lengthwise and the beans scraped out with a knife
½ cup fresh orange juice
1 cup Baumes de Venise – or another sweet white wine
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon orange flower water
½ cinnamon stick
16-24 apricots – cut in half
Makes 30 cookies
6 oz (1 ½ sticks) butter
2 teaspoons lemon olive oil
4 oz (just under ½ cup) sugar
Zest of 1 large orange (you can use blood oranges when in season too)
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
10 oz (2 ¼ cups) flour