Anyone who loves to cook will tell you that spring is the true beginning of the year. There's something in the air that makes their fingers itch in search of tender, young foods -- the early signals of crops yet to come -- to turn into gorgeous creations.
The truth is, when the mood hits it's difficult to imagine a happier way to spend a beautiful spring afternoon than in the kitchen -- not to make a lot of any one dish, but lots of different dishes that are light, tasty, colorful and as pretty as can be with which to surprise unsuspecting guests.
This five-course spring celebration menu for six meets all of those needs. The major ingredients are the herbs, vegetables, meat and fish that are flooding our markets now and will continue to be on hand for the next several weeks. Rosemary, asparagus, carrots, fresh greens, shad roe, spring lamb and rhubarb are used in colorful combinations that appeal to our artistic culinary instincts.
That these herbs and vegetables taste their best with a minimal amount of cooking and that most hold for a day or less once the final preparation starts could be considered a drawback for cooks who shy away from last-minute preparation. However, keep in mind that many of the preliminaries can be started a day ahead and assembly started early on the morning of the feast. On the other hand, dessert -- a delightfully moist rhubarb cheesecake -- must be completed at least a day ahead of serving in order to chill thoroughly.
The menu starts with thin slices of shad roe drizzled with a parsley-flecked orange sauce and served on toast points. Shad roe is the ultimate spring ingredient, since it is only available 100 days each year. The season starts locally around the first of February and peaks in late March and early April when the majority of these saltwater fish turn inland to the fresh waters of the Potomac and Patuxent rivers to spawn.
It is important to prick the roe slices all over with a needle so they don't burst while they saute'. They are thinly sliced and laid on toast points when done, and the colorful orange sauce is made in the same saute' pan. You may think that allowing only two points per person is a bit skimpy, but any more than that and the guests won't have room for the remainder of the meal.
Follow the roe with a spectacular carrot-and-spinach timbale sitting in a pool of spinach sauce sprinkled with diced yellow pepper. The bright orange disks are assembled and wrapped in blanched spinach leaves early on the morning of the feast. Once cooked, they are served slit open, looking like large Pac-Men, with the emerald green centers matching the green and yellow-specked sauce.
The carrots are poached in stock until tender and mixed with a mashed potato paste that helps to firm up the rather watery carrot pure'e. The carrot mixture, which can be made a day ahead, along with the sauce and the blanching of the spinach, is then piped into the bottoms and up the sides of custard cups which have been buttered and lined with additional blanched spinach leaves. The spinach sauce is spooned into the center of the timbale and additional carrot mousse is piped over the top, completely enclosing the sauce. Spinach leaves are laid over the top of the carrot mousse and the disks are then poached in a water bath. Garnish the top of the timbale with a pinch of grated carrot.
How can we celebrate spring without a course of baby lamb, asparagus and tiny red new potatoes? The answer, of course, is that we can't.
This saddle of lamb is no trouble at all, tied and roasted on a bed of rosemary and garlic. The bones are used with the pan drippings to make a thin sauce that is full of garlic and rosemary flavor. The potatoes should be poached slowly, so as not to break their delicate skins. Just before serving they are tossed with butter and parsley. The steamed asparagus are reheated with lemon juice and sprinkled with flecks of lemon peel. They are tied in tiny bundles with blanched scallion tops and served, fanned, in red pepper rounds.
A light salad course is always a nice finish to the savory portion of any sizable meal, since it cleanses the palate, getting it ready for dessert. Some of the nicest salads are made simply with a variety of fresh greens and scallions. For most of the winter we've enjoyed butterhead, chicory, belgian endive and romaine. Now that spring is here we can add red leaf lettuce, peppery ma che, fiddleheads (baby ferns) and tiny spinach leaves to round the choices out. Remember when choosing lettuces to look for differing textures, colors and flavors.
Wash the greens, tear them into bite-sized pieces and store them loosely in plastic bags the day before the meal. Just in case you don't have a dressing you're particularly fond of, a favorite standby is given below. The dressing can also be made a day ahead, but be sure to add the herbs just before tossing it with the salad in order to extract the most flavor from them.
Serve the salad with a light, airy goat cheese. When choosing the cheese for your dinner remember that French goat cheeses generally have a very smooth texture, rich nutty flavor and are not overly dry or creamy. Italian cheeses are less nutty and tangy than the French, but more so than the American varieties. Spanish goat cheeses have a good nutty flavor and tend to be very dry and crumbly. In addition, goat cheeses come with different coatings. They are lovely plain served with a little olive oil and black pepper, but consider, too, those coated with vegetable ashes, paprika, cumin or caraway seeds. It's up to you what you choose for this course; any flavor will work quite well with a green salad and simple vinaigrette.
The delicate pink of rhubarb is a grande finale swirled through this cream cheese and sour cream cheesecake. It is more like a pudding than a cake, in that it is served slightly undercooked. The cake must chill at least 24 hours before it is served and it holds quite well when made two days before serving.
Keep the decoration simple. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and sprinkle bits of chocolate wafers over the marbled top. Then make a circle of strawberry halves and lay a whole strawberry in the very center. Serve it with a flavored coffee and this will be a meal to stun your guests -- one they will remember for many springs to come. SHAD ROE ON TOAST POINTS WITH ORANGE SAUCE (6 servings) FOR THE SHAD ROE: 1 pair shad roe Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup flour 1 egg, beaten 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs 2 tablespoons olive oil FOR THE SAUCE: 4 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon bread crumbs 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 shallot, crushed Juice and grated peel of 1 orange 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley 3 slices fresh white bread
Prick the roe all over with a needle. Cut the membranes connecting the pair of roe. Freeze one half for later use or double the sauce in this recipe and use both, but remember that this makes a lot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and chill for 10 minutes. Dip in flour, egg, then bread crumbs. Heat the oil over medium heat. Add shad roe, cook, covered, over medium heat, 4 minutes on each side. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices, set aside and keep warm.
Add butter to the pan and melt. Add bread crumbs, garlic, shallot, juice and grated rind of orange and parsley. Cook 1 minute.
Trim white bread of its crust, cut in triangle quarters and toast. Lay roe on toast points. Spoon sauce over roe and serve. SPINACH AND CARROT TIMBALES ON A POOL OF SPINACH SAUCE FLECKED WITH DICED YELLOW PEPPERS (6 servings) FOR THE CARROT MOUSSE: 2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut up 4 tablespoons butter Chicken stock to cover carrots, about 3 cups Salt and pepper, to taste 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut up 2 eggs Freshly grated nutmeg to taste 2 pounds spinach Soft butter for custard cups FOR THE SPINACH SAUCE: 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots 1 teaspoon butter Salt and pepper to taste FOR SERVING: 1 large yellow bell pepper, diced 1 carrot, shredded
To make the carrot mousse: Cook the carrots in butter, stock and salt and pepper to taste until tender. Simmer the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain carrots, reserving stock. Drain potatoes. Cool. Pure'e carrots with eggs and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mash potato and season with salt and pepper. Mix enough mashed potato into carrot pure'e to thicken it (the mixture should slowly slide off a spoon). Set aside.
Clean spinach and remove tough stems. Set in a large pan and cover. Wilt over medium heat in only the water left on the leaves, about 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and dry thoroughly. Separate out enough large leaves to line bottom, sides and top of 6 1/2-cup custard cups. Set the remaining spinach aside to make the sauce. Brush inside of cups with butter and line with spinach leaves overlapping and so the leaves come up over the edge of the cup to enclose the carrot mousse.
To make the spinach sauce: Soften shallots in butter and let cool. Pure'e reserved spinach and shallots in food processor. Add enough stock to make a thin sauce (about 2 1/2 cups) and taste for seasoning.
Put carrot mousse in a pastry bag fitted with a Number 4 tube. Working from outside in, pipe mousse in a circle to cover bottom of spinach-lined custard cup. Pipe mousse up the sides. Repeat filling all 6 cups. Carefully spoon spinach sauce into center of each carrot mousse (there will be some leftover). Pipe a layer of carrot mousse over top of sauce and smooth edges of mousse. Carefully lift spinach leaves up over top of carrot mousse and enclose completely. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Poach in a water bath in a 350-degree oven until firm, about 30 minutes.
To serve, reheat remaining spinach sauce. Spoon a layer of sauce over bottom of plate. Flip mousse onto a spatula and carefully lay in the center of the sauce. Cut the center open and push open to expose the spinach center (the disk should look like a Pac-Man). Garnish top of mousse with shredded carrots, sprinkle diced yellow peppers around on sauce. Serve immediately. ROAST LOIN OF SPRING LAMB (6 servings) FOR THE SAUCE: Meat trimmings and bone from saddle of lamb, plus a few veal bones 1/2 onion, coarsely chopped 1/2 carrot, coarsely chopped 1/2 celery, coarsely chopped 1/2 leek, coarsely chopped 2 tablespoons vegetable oil Bouquet garni (3 parsley stems, 1 sprig fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf) 1 cup dry red wine FOR THE ROAST LOIN: 1 whole saddle spring lamb, boned and tied (about 3 1/2 pounds) Salt and pepper to taste 6 sprigs fresh rosemary sprigs 6 whole cracked garlic cloves
The day before your meal brown meat trimmings and bones in a 400-degree oven for 1 hour, or until very brown. Soften onion, carrot, celery and leek in vegetable oil in a stock pot. Remove bones from oven to stock pot with vegetables, bouquet garni and 1/2 cup wine. Cover with water. Add drippings from roasting pan. Simmer for 3 hours. Strain, discard meat and bones and chill. Just before using remove fat that accumulates on top.
Salt and pepper lamb all over and let sit 10 minutes. Lay a bed of garlic and rosemary sprigs in a roasting pan just large enough to fit roast. Place roast on top of garlic and rosemary and roast in a 450-degree oven to sear 15 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and cook 25 minutes a pound. (This will give you a medium-rare roast.) Remove from roasting pan and cover with foil, keeping warm for 20 minutes.
Remove fat layer from stock and reduce to 1 cup. Remove all but 2 tablespoons fat from the roasting pan. Leave garlic and rosemary in pan. Add reduced stock and remaining 1/2 cup of wine and bring to boil. Reduce to 1 cup. Strain and keep warm.
Carve roast into 1/2 inch slices. Arrange in overlapping layers garnished with a fresh sprig of rosemary. Spoon a little sauce over each piece and pass remaining sauce separately in a boat. LEMON-FLECKED ASPARAGUS (6 servings) 18 stalks fresh asparagus 1 small red pepper, cut into 6 rings 6 scallion tops 2 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste Juice and finely chopped rind of 1 lemon
Break woody ends off asparagus and clean. Steam until barely fork tender. Add scallion tops and red pepper rings during last minute of cooking. Remove all from heat and run under cold water to stop cooking. Tie asparagus in 6 bundles with scallion tops. Place in a saucepan with butter, salt and pepper to taste and juice and rind of lemon. Reheat just before serving. Fan in a red pepper ring and serve. MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE (Makes 1 cup) 2/3 cup olive oil 1/3 cup raspberry or balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons fresh herbs (any will do, including fresh parsley) Salt and pepper to taste 1 to 2 tablespoon mustard
Beat olive oil, vinegar, herbs and salt and pepper with a whisk. Whisk in mustard until mixture emulsifies.
This holds for weeks in the refrigerator; however, if you are making it ahead be sure to add the herbs at the last minute. RHUBARB CHEESECAKE (8 servings) FOR THE RHUBARB PUREE 1 pound rhubarb 1 cup sugar FOR THE CRUST Butter for pan About 10 thin chocolate wafers FOR THE CHEESECAKE FILLING 2 pounds cream cheese 1 cup sugar 3 eggs 24 ounces sour cream 1 teaspoon vanilla Rhubarb puree (above) FOR GARNISH Crumbled chocolate wafers Fresh strawberries for top
Cut rhubarb into 3/4-inch pieces. Barely cover with water. Add sugar and cook until tender and pulpy, about 10 minutes. Strain off excess liquid and return to heat to dry out. Pure'e in food processor.
Butter the sides only of a 9-inch springform cake pan. Crumble chocolate cookies in bottom of the pan. Reserve 1 tablespoon of crumbs for the top. Chill.
Soften the cream cheese with sugar on low speed with an electric mixer. Scrape down sides and mix in eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Spoon mixture over crumbled chocolate and swirl in rhubarb pure'e.
Bake in a boiling water bath 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Turn off oven, but leave door closed for 45 minutes. Do not peek or cake will fall. Remove from oven and sprinkle chocolate crumbs on top of cake. Arrange strawberry halves in a circle in the center. Cool completely before chilling in the refrigerator for at least one day and up to two days.