LIKE the smell of a freshly mowed lawn and the sound of a creaky swing, the sight of fresh strawberries, peas, carrots, onions and greens ranks high among the first signs of spring.
Those crisp red, green, orange and white displays at roadside produce stands can be melded into a four-course spring dinner that captures, in its simplicity and good taste, the best of the season.
Lovage, a large celery-like perennial, is one of the first herbs out of the ground each spring and should be making a showing at area specialty shops and herb gardens by the weekend. Whole sprigs of this strong, aromatic seasoning are used to flavor the fresh pea soup that is a simple combination of spanish onions, carrots and prosciutto.
The soup takes less than 15 minutes to prepare and should be done at the last possible moment, being served while the carrots are still crisp and the prosciutto barely warmed. Later, as the produce selection widens, substitute fresh sugar snap peas in place of snow peas for a slightly sweeter soup.
Leaves from watercress and tiny sorrel (available at Hester's Market in Georgetown and the Washington Cathedral Greenhouse) are used to line the plate for the second course--smoked fish with tangy rhubarb chutney and vinegared cherries. The sharp colors of the fresh, crisp greens against the milky brown of the fish and the dark red of the rhubarb chutney are especially appealing. The finishing touch: a drizzling of walnut oil.
Prepare the chutney at least a week ahead of time. Buy the brightest red rhubarb you can find, which not only lends color, but more tangy flavor. While it takes only 30 minutes to boil the chunks down to a thick sauce, the zip comes with age; this chutney can sit in the refrigerator for up to a year before reaching its peak. Silver Palate vinegared cherries are available in some local stores. If you like, however, you can substitute queen anne cherries soaked in cider vinegar for up to a week ahead.
The salad is best with smoked trout fillets and smoked whole chub. Since local fish markets do not always have these delights on hand, it is best to call and order ahead. We recently found them ranging in price from $4.90 to $5.99 a pound. Should you be unable to find them, you can substitute smoked whitefish or salmon, boned and served in fillets.
Orecchiette ("little ears") are the pasta for the fiery third course, "Orecchiette alla Toscana Maremma." The technique comes from the southern Italian region of Apulia. The rolling and shaping of the pasta is relatively quick, once you have the technique down.
The dough is a simple combination of semolina and unbleached all-purpose flour, water and egg. After kneading and rolling the dough into four 1/2-inch rods, leave it to rest between damp towels for half an hour. The cylinders are then re-rolled into thinner rods, 1/4-inch in diameter. They are cut into 1/2-inch cubes with a table knife: With the knife's tip, press squarely on the pasta at a 30-degree angle and scrape the dough across the counter toward you. The pasta will flatten out and then roll over on top of the knife. They should be pressed as thin as possible, as they thicken when cooked.
The sauce is a heated combination of eggplant, anchovies and olives seasoned with freshly ground red sichuan pepper, a hint of garlic and a splash of olive oil. It can be prepared ahead and left to sit, but be sure to add the Italian parsley only minutes before serving. Its rich licorice flavor will disappear if left on the heat too long.
The menu, which springs from the garden and kitchen of Michigan State University English professor A.C. Goodson, is topped off with a tangy yet sweet dessert tart filled with a pure'e of fresh rhubarb and garnished with whole strawberries marinated overnight in Grand Marnier. FRESH PEA SOUP (4 servings) 3 medium red spanish onions, chopped fine 3 medium carrots, cubed fine 1 tablespoon bacon fat 3 large leaves lovage, left whole (substitute 2 bay leaves) 1/3 cup cubed prosciutto (about 3 slabs cut 1/4-inch thick); or substitute country ham 1 1/2 pounds snow peas, cut in half (substitute sugar snap peas, unshelled and halved or thirds, depending on size) Salt and pepper Olive oil
Saute' carrots and onions in bacon drippings until limp. Cover with 1 quart water and add lovage. Add prosciutto and peas and simmer 3 minutes, or until peas are a bright green but still crisp. Season with salt and pepper. Remove lovage. Serve in hot bowls, drizzling olive oil in each. SMOKED FISH SALAD (4 servings) Large bunch watercress 1 handful small fresh sorrel leaves or 2 to 3 small heads belgian endive (about 1/4 pound) Freshly ground pepper 12 ounces smoked lake trout fillets and 4 whole chubs, at room temperature (substitute whitefish or smoked salmon, skinned and boned in fillets) 12 vinegared cherries (substitute queen anne cherries marinated in cider vinegar for at least 1 week) Rhubarb chutney (recipe below) Walnut oil Large lemon
Arrange greens on salad plates. Grind on fresh pepper (no salt) to taste. Place smoked fish fillets on top of greens on one side and dot with 3 vinegared cherries each for contrast. Place a large spoonful of rhubarb chutney on the other side of the plate. Drizzle with walnut oil and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve. RHUBARB CHUTNEY 2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch dice 2 cups sugar 2 skinned lemons (remove all white) 2 cups white vinegar 1 1/2 cups dried currants 2 tablespoons salt 2 tablespoons crushed garlic 2 1-inch pieces fresh ginger Red pepper pod (optional)
Put rhubarb, sugar, lemon pulp, vinegar, currants, salt, garlic, ginger and optional red pepper pod in large enamel or stainless steel pot. Boil until very thick (about 30 minutes). Remove ginger and red pepper pod. Pour in jars and store in refrigerator. Keeps up to one year in refrigerator as the flavors marry. ANNA'S ORECCHIETTE ALLA TOSCANA MAREMMA (4 to 6 servings) 1 large sweet red pepper 1 medium eggplant ( 3/4 pound) or small Japanese eggplant 1/2 cup olive oil 1 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled 1 hot dried red pepper, finely ground 28-ounce can Italian tomatoes, drained 4 to 6 salted anchovy fillets, chopped 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley Chopped fresh basil to taste (2 teaspoons dry) 2 ounces pitted Nyons olives 1 pound fresh orecchiette (recipe follows)
Blister pepper until black on all sides under broiler or holding over the flame of gas burner. Run under cold water and peel. Remove seeds and cut into tiny strips. Trim eggplant and cut into small cubes.
Saute' whole garlic and dried red pepper in oil, just until garlic is limp. Add eggplant, tomato pulp and chopped anchovies and simmer 10 minutes. Add parsley and basil, then olives. Add pepper strips, cover and simmer 15 minutes more. The sauce should not be too thick. Cook orecchiette until just tender. Drain and add to the sauce. Serve very hot. ORECCHIETTE (4 servings) 1 cup semolina flour 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1/2 cup warm water, approximately 1 egg, beaten with 2 tablespoons water Pinch of salt
Blend semolina and unbleached all-purpose flour together. Spread in a circle on a marble board, make a well and fill it with the water and a pinch of salt. Working in toward the water, combine flour with water to make a thick dough. Add egg mixture and knead until smooth and no longer sticky. Divide dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into long rods about 1/2-inch in diameter. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest 30 minutes.
To form ears roll a cylinder to a 1/4-inch diameter (leaving others covered with a damp cloth). With a table knife, cut off a 1/2-inch piece. Center the flat end of the knife over the tiny piece of pasta. At a 30-degree angle press down and scrape the pasta across the counter towards you. Pasta should roll over on top of knife, forming into a shell or "ear." Repeat with remainder of strip and then continue process with remaining rods of pasta. Let the pasta continue to dry on counter while you prepare the sauce.
When ready to eat, add pasta to a large pot of boiling water, seasoned with coarse grain salt to taste. It should be cooked al dente, about 10 minutes. RHUBARB AND STRAWBERRY TART (Makes 1 10-inch tart) Shell: 2 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon sugar 10 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into bits Up to 1/3 cup cold water Filling: 1 pound rhubarb 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 cup sugar Up to 1 quart small strawberries Grand Marnier Whipped cream flavored with Grand Marnier
Make the shell by placing the flour, sugar and butter in a bowl. Rub the flour and butter together between the tips of your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse flakes. Add water as needed to gather dough into a ball. It should just hold together and be pliable, but not damp and sticky. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit in refrigerator at least 30 minutes.
Remove dough and place on a floured board. Knead briefly into a fairly flat circle. Roll from the center out to fit a 10-inch pie plate. Continue lifting, turning, rolling and flouring board while working to avoid sticking. Lift and gently place in pan. Line pastry with foil and weight down with dried beans. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 5 to 6 minutes, until pastry is set. Remove weights, prick tiny holes in pastry with a fork, and continue baking for 8 to 10 minutes more.
Carefully clean strawberries and marinate in Grand Marnier, covered, overnight. Drain and set aside, reserving 1 tablespoon of liquer to flavor whipped cream. Clean the rhubarb and wash under cold water. Cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces and simmer along with sugar and lemon juice until tender (about 30 minutes). Let cool slightly and then pure'e. Pour pure'e in prepared shell. Garnish with whole strawberries. Chill. Top with whipped cream flavored with Grand Marnier.