In the last couple weeks, farmers markets have begun opening up all across town, their stalls packed with spring’s earliest ingredients – rhubarb, peas, pea shoots, asparagus, wild mushrooms, young herbs. All of it so beautiful, so fresh and so delicious. And such a joy to cook with. We’ve been eating as much of this beautiful produce as we can now, because we know it won’t be here for long. Just like spring itself, which always seems to evaporate so quickly in a flash of summer sun, spring ingredients come and go so swiftly. So indulge! Eat all the asparagus you can. Stuff yourself with rhubarb pie. Let’s celebrate this delicious season!
Our guests last week were our new friends, Jenn (Ben’s newest co-worker) and her boyfriend Sam. Just as you’re certain to see some of my favorite springtime ingredients up on this site again and again, you can be sure you’ll be hearing about Jenn and Sam at least a time or two in the next few months. Already, we can’t wait to have them over again. I have a good feeling this way-too-fun couple is going to become a regular installment of Scrumptious Company.
The menu highlighted some of my favorite spring ingredients – artichokes, veal, fennel, lemons, fresh herbs and peas…
The hors d’oeuvres were maybe my favorite part of the entire meal. Tender artichoke leaves acted as small spoons, each holding a sweet pink shrimp, quickly roasted under a hot broiler, then topped with a zesty marinade of lemon, oregano and extra-virgin olive oil. Additional layers of bright flavor came with a sprinkling of diced artichoke hearts, tangy capers, sweet and pungent speckles of onions, and a salty crumble of fete cheese.
Each artichoke leaf holds one perfect little bite. Along with the curled shrimp and its confetti of toppings, the tender artichoke flesh at the base of the leaf is part of the whole bite too. Your teeth scoop out this sweet pulp, and all that’s left behind is the fibrous outer layer of the leaf. There’s something intrinsically fun about scooping up your bites with these spoon-shaped leaves, these nature-made utensils. And along with this bit of fun comes a huge, marvelous flavor. Each bite is a singular parcel of deliciousness, a small package of fabulous taste. Afterall, as I believe the saying goes, the most delicious things do come in small packages.
For the main course, a few simple components came together into a really great dish. The parmesan polenta - a velvety puddle of slowly simmered cornmeal, so soft and warm and smooth. The buttery yellow color is a fitting echo of its rich, creamy texture. And its flavor is reminiscent of pure, down-to-earth goodness. Corn, cream, butter and parmesan. So simple. And simply, so good.
And the caramelized fennel. This on the other hand, tastes like pure decadence. Again only a few simple ingredients – fennel, butter, salt and pepper. But when it comes to flavor, there’s nothing simple about this fennel at all. The slow – and I mean ever so slow – caramelization of the fennel builds layer upon layer of complex flavors, deepening the licorice essence into a dozen subtle tones of sweet, delicious charm.
As far as peas were concerned, I couldn’t make up my mind. At the market that morning, I encountered some beautifully snappy snow peas, some freshly shucked English peas, and some wispy curls of pea shoots. I was tempted by all three, so decided to use them all. I quickly boiled the English peas, turning them sweet, tender and vibrant green, and sliced the flat snow peas into thin, crunchy ribbons. A pat of butter, a dash of cream and small handful of fresh tarragon made a quick and simple sauce, into which I folded the peas and their tender shoots. So fresh and bright and green, this gorgeous side dish was filled with spring!
The pavlova desserts, cups of crisp meringue filled with lemon custard and topped with pile of fresh berries, were a big hit. I adore baked meringue – brittle and crackly and the outside, dense and chewy on the insides. The texture alone is heaven to me. And lemon custard too – it’s one of my most favorite sweets in the world. So tart and refreshing, I just love it. Crispy-chewy clouds of meringue, silky smooth lemon custard, and to top it all, fresh juicy blueberries and blackberries. These pavlovas were as pretty as can be. And they tasted even better.