FOODS ARE SIGNALS of seasons. Picture autumn and you see bright orange pumpkins. Or think of spring and visions of green asparagus stalks and bright red rhubarb pop to mind.
Certainly, modern transportation -- perhaps a new definition of "airline food" -- has made it possible to serve strawberries for Christmas and young lamb for Labor Day. But planning a dinner party around spring foods in their natural season singles out this gentle time of year. And a bonus is that these foods are now at their lowest cost and their highest supply.
If there are no daffodils or tulips for picking in your garden, these as well as other spring flowers are also a bargain right now, so pack the house with masses of them. Or create a more naturalistic indoor garden. Trim branches of flowering shrubs and trees such as azalea or magnolia and arrange them on the table with small vases of cut flowers scattered about. (Caution: The life expectancy of cut boughs is about that of the dinner, so stick the stems in water immediately if you don't want them wilting before the wine is poured.)
Set the table with pale pastel linens and place any delicate porcelain objects like a china rabbit or frog with the flowers on the table to form a more staged still life.
The menu should be as fresh and light as the atmosphere. Virginia is one of the best states for hunting wild morels, and there are many books on the subject to ensure it's actually morels you're picking. The less adventurous can find the succulent wild fungi in many supermarkets along with another exotic edible, fiddlehead ferns.
Chef Jimmy Schmidt, formerly of Detroit's London Chop House and now at the newly opened Rattlesnake Club in Denver, always liked to prepare these two foods together in a saute' with sherry since "they grow together in the quiet of the forest, and their delicate flavors balance so well."
For aquatic offerings, soft-shell crabs, an early pride from the Chesapeake, and heartier shad roe from the same waters, could form the basis of the meal. The crabs can be prepared as simply as saute'eing them in a little butter then whisking in some fresh parsley and lemon juice to the pan at the end. In the mid-Atlantic states, shad fillets are nailed to planks before grilling, and the century-old way of eating the roe is to broil it and serve it on a bed of shredded creamed sorrel, another food considered a harbinger of spring.
If you're more in the mood for meat, or for a more elaborate meal, follow the seafood with spring lamb, either served as a roasted leg or butterflied and grilled. Both methods are improved by marinating the lamb in some red wine with fresh herbs such as thyme and rosemary. The same herbs can be included in a breadcrumb topping.
In lieu of a salad course, the vegetable can be a cold arrangement of three vegetables closely associated with this season -- asparagus, artichokes and fresh peas. The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association estimates that the first part of May is when the largest supply of these crops comes to market. And while the tones of green and the flavors vary, they all take well to a light vinaigrette dressing. Steam and scoop out the hairy choke of the artichoke, fill it with peas and surround the artichoke with pencil-thin asparagus tips for a combination salad and vegetable course.
End dinner with another spring tradition -- a strawberry rhubarb pie. Or serve an updated version from the chef at the Inn at Little Washington; Patrick O'Connell's ethereally light rhubarb mousse is a perfect spring dessert, especially when garnished with sliced strawberries. Serve it with a glass of sparkling California wine and toast spring -- with all of nature's bounty that it implies. RHUBARB MOUSSE Serves 8
1 1/4 pounds finely diced fresh rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon (1 envelope) unflavored gelatin
4 tablespoons cold water
2 cups whipping cream
Combine the rhubarb and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer for 20 minutes over low heat, stirring frequently. Reserve 1/2 cup and pure'e the remainder in a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade.
While the mixture is simmering, sprinkle the gelatin over the water to soften. Add to the pure'e and stir until the gelatin is dissolved and no granules remain.
Whip the cream until stiff and fold in the pure'e and reserved rhubarb. Chill well before serving.