The End of Winter
|Snowdrops bravely begin to poke through the mulch of dead leaves and pine needles|
Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, is the last hurrah of the winter holidays that begin (in the US) with Thanksgiving and end with the Carnival season. It's a time to enjoy one last blast - a waltz with a jelly doughnut and some Champagne if you're in a Viennese mood; or jambalaya, a Sazerac and some two-stepping if your preference is NOLA Style.
In any case, it's the end of winter and time to herald the first stirrings of Spring. For many of us still bound by snow and cold, that last claim seems a little preposterous. But - look around you. Days are lengthening. The sun is stronger. Gardening catalogs, which began to arrive around Christmas, now stuff everyone's mailbox - and produce vivid daydreams of green grass, bright flowers, and the first taste of garden lettuce and peas. Oh, yes - it's coming!
Lent, the Christian penitential season that begins tomorrow, is derived from an ancient word meaning SPRING. It's also a lean season; a welcome change following the weeks of hearty holiday and winter fare. We are encouraged - whether for the good of our souls or the health of our bodies, or (better yet) both - to plan smaller meals around fish rather than red meat, or to eschew animal products completely. One of the old traditions for Shrove Tuesday was cleaning the house and discarding the preserved meats and winter vegetables left over from the harvest and butchering times of the autumn. A sound practice! Dairy products are usually also in short supply on traditional Lenten menus. Milk and eggs, along with sugar and butter, were often used up creatively before Ash Wednesday. One of the alternative names for Shrove Tuesday in Great Britain is Pancake Day - pancakes are made by the dozen and topped with rich and creative (and sometime boozy!) additions. Some towns (such as Olney in Buckinghamshire) hold Pancake Races, which involve women running a course from the town center to the church, flipping pancakes in pans as they go.
Lent, though it heralds spring, is certainly still prone to winter weather and its attendant gloom. It's hard to wait, sometimes, for the coming season! I recall, as a young girl in Minneapolis, trying to wear my green spring coat to Mass on St. Patrick's Day, just because it was green and therefore seasonal. I about froze my butt off. And I did that TWICE. Hope does spring eternal, at this time of year!
Speaking of freezing, we had a major snow storm or two a couple of weeks ago - lots of shoveling and worries about the weight of snow on the roof and suchlike. I ventured out, at the end of the week, determined to see some sun and blue sky. I went to Portland to walk around the Back Cove, a pleasant 3.5 mile walk around an arm of Casco Bay. Well, a usually-pleasant walk. This day was sunny but very blustery, and the path ranged from merely snow-covered to ice to slush to deep puddles. It took me a good hour and more to do the walk, but it WAS lovely. Here are a couple of photos:
|Back Cove, east side|
|Thawing beach, west side of Back Cove|
Lemons, recipes, and a look back at a food columnOne of the most welcome Christmas gifts I received was a box stuffed with fresh Meyer lemons, from my stepson and his wife, who live in California. Meyer lemons have a peculiar (to me) scent, but a wonderfully fruity and even mildly sweet lemon flavor. But the scent of their rind smells to me like pine sap; very resin-y. Perhaps it's just me! But the freshness of the fruit, and the wonderful taste of the juice is too much to resist. I began making lemon-based desserts and salad dressings immediately. I thought of chess pie, which often is flavored with lemon juice. And then I thought - well, I've written about this before!
You see, I used to write a regular column for the local newspaper when I lived in Burlington, Massachusetts. It was a while ago, but I sometimes like to look back on some of those columns. Okay, I'll reproduce one right here. It has some local references (I was trying to support a wonderful Italian provisions shop in town, but - sadly- it didn't last for long ...) but the recipes are still good. And it does suggest a good version of chess pie, with lemons. So, here goes:
Stand in the Place Where You Live … Now Face South (original title)
Okay, I couldn’t take another minute of the cold and the snow. I had a strained shoulder from shoveling, and so help me, my beloved Packers were gonna lose big. It was Florida time, and no mistake.
Ah, Florida. A pilgrimage to Bahia Mar (required of all Travis McGee devotees), mind-numbing trips to erstwhile art galleries (that’s art? Are they kidding?) and lots of horizontal time by the pool with a good book and a tropical drink at the elbow. It might be the end of the world as we know it, but I did feel fine.
Part of that good feeling had to be from the fare provided us at the local restaurants. From traditional Cuban specialties to stone crab to incredibly fresh tuna and a superlative vanilla bean ice cream – I found a lot of reasons to visit the gym. But the good news is that many of the best dishes were low in fat but big on flavor and satisfaction. Since I’ve been back in the chill of New England (and yes, just in time to cheer on the Pats at the Razor) I’ve been experimenting with some Southern flavors to try and recreate the feel of Florida in January. I’ve hit upon a fair recreation of a signature appetizer offered by the outstanding Fort Lauderdale oceanside restaurant 3030: seared scallops with garlic-flavored sautéed spinach, wine-braised mushrooms and a balsamic vinegar glaze. Since this dinner is delicious, but low in fat and calories, why not splurge just a bit for dessert with a classic (but slimmed-down) version of a Southern specialty: chess pie?
For this menu, the quality of the main ingredients will really decide whether you have a merely good meal or a really amazing one. If you can find fresh sea scallops, (try Roche Bros. or a large seafood market) by all means buy them – and use them immediately. If really fresh scallops are scarce, try the large frozen ones offered by Trader Joe’s – but thaw them quickly before use, in ice water. A pound of scallops will feed four diners.
But begin with the mushrooms. Purchase about one pound of large white mushrooms, clean them, and cut them into quarters. Melt about one tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan, and add the mushrooms. Sauté over low heat until the mushrooms begin to give up their liquid. To the liquid add about 1 / 4 cup dry red wine, and cook slowly, stirring, until the liquid has been absorbed and the mushrooms are glazed a deep brown-red. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper and keep the mushrooms warm over very low heat.
Next, turn to the balsamic glaze. This, very simply, is good balsamic vinegar that has been reduced to a light syrup. Pour about 1 / 3 cup balsamic vinegar (Lorella & Famiglia can provide outstanding balsamic, but the 10-year old Modena at Trader Joe’s will do just fine as well) into a very heavy small saucepan, and begin to reduce the vinegar over low heat. Watch this well; it can caramelize in a flash. When the liquid coats the sides of the pan when you swirl it, the glaze is ready. Keep it warm at the back of the stove.
Now, prepare the scallops. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle, and melt about a tablespoon of butter on it. Blot the scallops well with paper towels before placing them onto the hot skillet. Sear the scallops until they are a deep brown on both sides, and then lower the heat to cook the seafood thoroughly. Do not overcook! Check the middle of the scallops to ensure they are just opaque all the way through.
While the scallops finish cooking, quickly toss two peeled and minced garlic cloves in one tablespoon olive oil that has been heated in a sauté pan or a wok. When the garlic is sizzling, add one large package cleaned baby spinach leaves, and sauté until the spinach has just wilted and heated through.
Serve the scallops on a bed of the hot spinach. Scatter the braised mushrooms around the scallops, and make a puddle of the balsamic glaze in one corner for dipping the scallops. Serve this elegant, quick dinner with chewy ciabatta bread from Lorella, and a sophisticated Fumé Blanc.
For dessert, try a very simple, quite light version of Chess Pie. Prepare your favorite pie crust in a 9-inch pie pan. Press foil and pie weights onto the crust, and bake it at 425 degrees, until light brown, about 12 minutes. Let the blind-baked crust cool. Mix two eggs, two egg whites, one cup sugar, two tablespoons flour, the grated rind of one lemon, two tablespoons fresh lemon juice, and one teaspoon vanilla. Slowly add one cup lowfat buttermilk, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture into the baked shell, and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until the center is just set. This pie is delicious on the day you make it, but it is even better a day later, if you can wait that long!
More food photos
|Lemon meringue pie - without the crust. Try it!|
|King Cake - for Mardi Gras!|
Some Seasonal Flowers
|How can you go wrong with primroses?|
A PreviewAre you ready to plant a garden yet? Okay, it's a bit early. But here's something to get you thinking both of the garden AND the pollinating insects that make the wonderful fruits and vegetables and flowers possible, year after year. Bees, especially honeybees and native bumble bees, are having a hard time of it. It is to our advantage to plant and maintain gardens that will attract and support these critical pollinators. I will be making available, through my web site (OffMill.com) embossed paper disks impregnated with seeds for bee-friendly plants. Just plant the paper disk for a small meadow of mixed flowers. Here's a preview of what they look like: