By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; E01
The calendar and a few days of glorious weather tell us the season has changed. But as far as the dinner table is concerned, an obstacle still stands in the way: Mother Nature.
The point was made on a recent Saturday evening at Tallula restaurant in Arlington. The server announced a special entree of braised rabbit with peas, carrots and spinach ricotta dumplings, brightly noting, "The chef wants it to be spring."
Don't we all.
The rest of chef Barry Koslow's menu told more of a winter story: fried oysters with celery root puree; cod with applewood-smoked bacon, lentils and cauliflower; snapper with maitake mushrooms and blood orange vinaigrette; beet ravioli; side dishes of butter-braised kale and spaghetti squash.
We cooks have had our fill of winter but find ourselves stuck in a transitional period. It's not grilling season yet, but we've eaten enough short ribs slow-cooked in red wine sauce to last until next fall.
So what do you do to come out of the food doldrums, particularly when what is available and good, produce-wise, still largely consists of what has been around all winter?
I opt for a strategy that takes optimal advantage of light and color, starting with the occasion. An informal Sunday supper that begins at 5 or 6 is a great way to entertain in early spring. A party that takes place on that day gives the host plenty of time to prepare during the weekend. Thanks to daylight saving time, a good portion of the meal transpires while it is light outside. Guests appreciate that the event ends at a reasonable hour.
When I invited friends over for a Sunday a few weeks ago, I asked whether they minded coming at 6. "Are you kidding?" one guest asked. "We love Sunday suppers, and we love coming at 6. It's a nice way to start the workweek off without dragging through the next day."
So, no martinis and Manhattans. Instead of cocktails, I started off the evening with a few bottles of Tissot Cremant du Jura ($24 at Cork Market & Tasting Room), a non-vintage brut rosé sparkling wine, to accompany some favorite easy nibbles: toasted spiced pecans and sweet Peppadew peppers stuffed with slivers of herbed fresh mozzarella.
From the "refashioned items" section of my freezer came some chicken liver pâté, a smoked salmon spread and half a loaf of fruit and nut pumpernickel that I turned into oil-drizzled crisps. The pâté was from a party I wrote about in January; the spread was processed from bits of smoked salmon, cream cheese, butter, red onions, capers and lemon left over from a Sunday brunch platter. Who has to know unless you tell? (It's a wonder that anyone who reads my column still accepts my invitations.)
In keeping with the casual theme, my menu included three courses (salad, entree, dessert) that could be served family-style right from the dining room table.
I knew I wanted to make the French version of veal stew known as blanquette de veau: chunks of braised veal shoulder, pearl onions and mushrooms in a white sauce of stock and cream lightly thickened with a roux. It's a main dish that works particularly well for early spring because it is hearty enough for a cool night but not as stodgy as, say, beef bourguignon. It's a lot less messy, too, because you blanch the meat briefly in salted water at the beginning of preparation rather than browning it on all sides in hot fat.
To keep from having to serve a side dish or a starch, I added more vegetables to the blanquette. I roasted one-inch pieces of cauliflower, parsnips and carrots along with pearl onions, shiitake and cremini mushrooms and whole garlic cloves. The lightly colored vegetables kept the stew from looking drab and wintry. To inject some green into the mix, I cut baby spinach leaves into thin chiffonade strips and served the stew atop them as if they were noodles. (The spinach could just as easily have been incorporated into the stew.)
The blanquette offered an additional benefit: I could keep it warm, over low heat, until I was ready for it. That kept the pressure off, as did choosing to serve a cold salad first.
Celery root, or celeriac, was the salad's main ingredient. A form of celery grown for its large, white root, celery root has a delicate celery flavor, but it's earthy, too, like fresh horseradish but without the bite. It may be eaten raw, but it can be tough, so I prefer to slice the root into rounds, blanch them for a minute and then cut them into julienne strips. The salad was a riff on the French remoulade, featuring a mayonnaise flavored with grainy mustard, celery seed and scallions. I added shredded carrots, daikon radish and julienne of Granny Smith apples to the mix for texture, sweetness, tartness and color. Garnishes of pistachios, Boursin cheese and Iberico ham elevated the sophistication a bit.
Taking advantage of plentiful oranges and grapefruit, I created a perfectly delightful, sunny spring dessert: a single moist layer of cake topped with a citrus glaze and a compote of orange and grapefruit segments enhanced with rose water. Cornmeal and olive oil added extra dimension to the cake's batter.
Unsweetened Greek-style yogurt as an accompaniment offered a note of dairy freshness to the dessert's sweet and tart elements.
As it turned out, the menu worked equally well when I invited a friend over for lunch a couple of weeks after my Sunday supper. Over dessert, my guest eyed the pink-yellow tulips and roseate ranunculus I had loaded into vases on the table and said: "Everything was so delicious. It was spring, but not spring. You know?"
Hagedorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.