THE SWEDES HAVE a word for it, and so do the French; I don't think there is an English equivalent: des primeurs. The word itself has a pert and merry sound, like a whiff of spring. What it means is the first-comers, the first tender lettuce of the year, the first sweet peas, radishes, the first tiny carrots, potatoes, strawberries -- anything that can't be found during a long, cold winter.
I grew up in Sweden, and today I wonder what we ate during so many winter months. Then I remember the grocery story on the corner: bins of dirty potatoes from the previous fall; huge, sad-looking carrots; rutabaga; wilting cabbage; celeriac. In December we waited for the so-called orange boat, shipments of oranges into the port of Gothenburg, my home town. They came from Spain, and we were happy when they arrived in time for Christmas.
I don't mind eating oranges all year round; it's certainly a pleasure to have strawberries in February; and I love Boston lettuce, particularly in winter. But something is amiss, and I think of those first-comers with nostalgia.Never mind that it's also a nostalgia for something else, far less edible. And never mind either that the first vegetables of the year usually were a disappointment: Lettuce grown in Scandinavia in May is fragile, almost sickish; the first northern tomatoes are pale and hard; the first strawberries barely have a blush.
American vegetables are bursting with health. Throughout the year they're shiny, colorful, almost vulgar. I cherish this unabashed vitality. Still, each spring I go through a Swedish ritual: I buy the tiniest new potatoes I can find, scape their paper-thin skins and boil them with a hanful of dill. Then we eat them with butter, as a meal unto themselves, pretending they're farskpotatis. It almost works.
What to do with the first-comers is: as little as possible. Their taste, looks, texture should be pure, clean unadultered. Recipes for these new fresh vegetables are all gentle and a bit bland, but they do bring out their very particular sweetness. SPRING SOUP (Varsoppa) (4 to 5 servings) 1 bunch tiny carrots 3 tablespoons butter 2 sliced spring onions 1/2 cup fresh green peas 1 cup pea pods 2 cups stock 3 ounces spinach (optional) 2 1/2 cups milk Salt, pepper 2 egg yolks beaten with 2 tablespoons cream (substitute 2 tablespoons milk) 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
The trick is to cook the vegetables in the right order. They should be tender, but absolutely not mushy.
Scrape and slice carrots. Melt butter in a pot but don't let it brown. Add carrots and let them get semisoft, then add sliced spring onions and peas, then pea pods. Add stock ad let boil for no more than 5 minutes. (If you use spinach, it has to be blanched -- quickly boiled -- separately, otherwise the soup gets bitter. Add well-drained, coarsely chopped spinach when the soup is finished.)
Add milk and heat, but do not let boil. Season to taste.
Break 2 egg yolks in a large, deep bowl; add cream or milk and whip lightly. Continue whipping and pour the hot soup into the bowl. Sprinkle parsley on top. LETTUCE SOUP (Potage aux laitues) (4 to 5 servings) 4 cups milk 4 small heads of Boston lettuce 1/4 cup butter Salt, pepper 1 or 2 egg yolks whipped with 2 tablespoons cream (or substitute 2 tablespoons milk) Croutons
This is one of the simplest recipes for a mild and gentle soup, made in about 10 minutes.
Simmer milk (don't let it boil over) and skim off any skin or strain it. Wash and drain lettuce well. Cut coarsely and cook in half the butter, but don't let it brown. Add milk, simmer for a few minutes, add remaining butter and season to taste. One or two egg yolks can be added: Break them into a large bowl, whip them lightly with a few tablespoons of cream or milk, continue whipping and pour the hot soup over them. Serve with unseasoned croutons. In France, the soup would be served with toasted slices of the previous day's baguette. VIRGIN SOUP (Potage a la vierge) (4 to 5 servings) 1/4 cup blanched almonds, pounded or ground 2 hard-cooked egg yolks 1/2 cup cream 1 cup fresh peas 4 cups stock 2 cups pea pods Salt Chopped parsley Croutons (optional)
The original recipe calls for pounded almonds. Pounding them in a mortar is a time-consuming process. You can use ground almonds, though the taste, and particularly the texture, are not quite the same.Almonds add a sweet taste to the soup, roughly what a pinch of sugar does to the classic petits pois a la francaise.
Mash hard-cooked egg yolks, add (pounded or ground) almonds and dilute with the cream. Boil the fresh peas in stock for about 5 minutes. Add pea pods and simmer until they are barely tender.
Pour some hot soup on the cream mixture to disolve it a bit more and then add this creamy liquid to the hot soup. Season to taste (no pepper, please).
Can be served with unseasoned croutons. Very mild, sweet and delicious!