TO CELEBRATE spring, Michael Kay might send his loved one a dozen red roes. He'll have a few to spare. He's ordered 40 pairs (that's 80 roes) from a local seafood market.
But roe cannot appear in the market without the fish from which it comes -- in this case, shad. Shad fans covet this bony fish because, as one fish retailer puts it, "It's just got a soft . . . well, it's just got a taste all its own." Hard to describe, but shad lovers will pay dearly to get their first forkful.
Washington's culinary rites of spring don't begin and end with shad and shad roe, however. Like the rest of the country, area cooks welcome spring with meals including asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, rhubarb and lamb.
"The term 'spring lamb' goes back 100 years to the fact that lambs were produced in the spring of the year," says a spokesman for the National Lamb Council. "The term 'spring' is something we're trying to get away from."
Try they may, but spring remains lamb's most popular season. Most of the 329 million pounds of lamb consumed in this country last year was eaten in the spring.
Asparagus, that first green glimmer of spring, proves a likely accompaniment. Perhaps people appreciate aspargus for the seasonal apparition -- it promises further bounty soon to come: tender greens, spring onions, cucumbers, peppers, squash and, eventually, real tomatoes.
Right around this time, farmers in Castroville, Calif., begin to ship the product for which their town has been dubbed "the artichoke capital of the world." This prickly, intimidating vegetable often confuses the uninitiated, but many people find it well worth the effort. Some cherish the leaves, which, when boiled, can be dipped in numerous sauces, and the artichoke flesh can be scraped off with the teeth.
Some extravagantly discard the leaves in favor of the delectable bottom, which stacks with tournedos and coddles crab. Clever parents sometimes introduce the vegetable to children as "finger food," knowing they'll ignore the bottom (leaving it on their plates for parents obligingly to finish) and thus allow the happy parents to appreciate some idiosyncrasies of youth.
Many artichoke enthusiasts maintain that the vegetable stimulates the taste buds and the appetite. True or not, whole artichokes, chokes removed, make perfect appetizers at room temperature, filled with a garlicky sauce. Served hot, they can be filled with an emulsion sauce (bearnaise, hollandaise or mayonnaise) and served the same way. Tear the leaves for dipping; when they are gone, the sauce-coated heart remains.
Some attribute the artichoke with a sweetening power and discourage drinking wines with or after an artichoke course. Consequently you may, if you wish, serve the marinated artichokes after the lamb course in the following menu.
Strawberries, some speculate, may go the way of the tomato. Even now they are beautiful, but rarely bruiseable. Shippers send them across the country with impunity, sacrificing flavor -- and perhaps, eventually, color?
Better to indulge in the more tart, perhaps tastier, rhubarb. Southerners have sugared and stewed the pink stalks for generations, added them to their cobblers and pies. Layer it with cheesecake to add flavor that California strawberries sadly lack.
In a few weeks shad will run from the Carolinas to the Chesapeake. Nothing could be finer than a shad from Carolina (except one from Washington). So, add some to this perfect spring meal. Shad roe with peppers and lemon Marintated artichokes Lamb chops with steamed asparagus and julienned carrots Rhubarb cheesecake
SHAD ROE 2 to 3 red (or green) peppers 6 ounces unsalted butter 3 pairs shad roe, separated Salt and freshly ground black pepper Lemon wedges 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Clean and slice the peppers into very thin strips. Melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet with a cover. Saute' pepper strips (in two batches if necessary) in butter until they just begin to turn tender -- leave them slightly crisp. Remove the peppers and set aside. Add remaining butter to skillet and melt over medium heat. Pierce the roe in several places with a needle. Place roe in hot butter, coating them well all over. Cover and cook very gently over low heat about 10 minutes, turning once. Salt and pepper lightly. Remove from pan and place on individual serving plates--allowing 1/2 set per person for a first course serving. Garnished with red pepper strips and lemon wedges. Sprinkle with parsley.
MARINATED ARTICHOKES (6 servings) 6 large globe artichokes (or substitute 2 to 3 packages frozen artichoke hearts, cooked according to package directions) Juice of 1 lemon 6 anchovies, drained 1 large clove garlic 6 pickled cocktail onions, chopped 1 tablespoon dijon mustard 1/2 cup olive oil 6 tablespoons red wine vinegar Freshly ground pepper
Snap off the outside green leaves of the artichoke until you reach the inner pale yellow leaves. Slice off the top quarter of the remaining artichoke to remove the tough, fibrous part of the leaves. With a potato peeler, peel the stem, then trim the rough bottom of the stem. With a paring knife, slice off the remaining parts of the leaves that you've peeled off (down by the base near the stem). The prickly choke should be apparent inside the artichoke. Remove this by scooping it out with a spoon, or cut the artichoke into quarters and scrape the choke out with a knife. Put the juice of 1 lemon in a very large pot. Fill the pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the artichoke bottoms and cook about 12 minutes, or until tender.
Mash the anchovies, garlic and onion into paste using a mortar and pestle, blender or food processor. Stir in the mustard, oil and vinegar and work with pestle until the sauce is smooth. Add pepper and mix to combine. If artichoke bottoms are still whole, quarter them and place on small serving plates. Drizzle with sauce and serve. These are good cold, room temperature or hot.
BROILED LAMB CHOPS WITH VEGETABLES (6 servings) 5 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon tarragon 1/2 teaspoon rosemary 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley 6 double lamb chops Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetables 1 pound carrots, peeled and julienned 7 tablespoons butter 24 spears asparagus
Combine olive oil and garlic. Set aside. Cream butter with tarragon, rosemary and parsley. Cut a slit along back, fatty edge of lamb chops and stuff with a little of the butter mixture, dividing it equally among chops. Brush the chops with the olive oil mixture and place on a rack over a baking sheet. Broil two inches from the source of heat in a very hot broiler. Brown both sides, cooking a total of 10 minutes for rare, 15 for medium and 20 for well done. Transfer to a warm platter. Season with salt and pepper.
For the vegetables, cover carrots 3/4 of the way with water. Add salt and pepper to taste, and 2 tablespoons butter. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender.
Wash asparagus, carefully scraping sand out from the sides. Steam for about 8 minutes; pat with 2 tablespoons butter and season with salt and pepper. To serve, put 4 asparagus spears on each plate. Place lamb chop on top and serve carrots on side with 1/2 tablespoon of butter.
RHUBARB CHEESECAKE (1 9-inch cheesecake) 1 pound rhubarb (enough to make 3 cups) 1 cup sugar 2 cups crumbs of graham crackers, zwieback, gingersnaps or vanilla wafers 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 1 tablespoon flour 8 tablespoons melted butter 11 ounces cream cheese 2 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 8 ounces sour cream
Cut rhubarb into 2-inch slices. Combine with 1/2 cup sugar in a medium saucepan and set aside. Combine crumbs, 1/4 confectioners' sugar and melted butter. Press into bottom and sides of springform pan. Reserve a few crumbs for sprinkling on top of the cheesecake, if desired. Over medium heat cook rhubarb, covered, until it is barely tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in flour. Pour into crumb crust and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, beat cream cheese. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add 1/2 cup sugar gradually, beating constantly. Beat in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Pour over rhubarb and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Sift 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar into sour cream and blend well. Remove cheesecake from oven, top with sour cream mixture and bake 10 minutes more. Cool, then refrigerate, overnight if possible.