Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spring Fling

Spring is on its way (although I know my friends on the East coast, being threatened with one of those last-ditch, dammit-it’s-still-winter, this-will-kill-all-my-daffodils-that-have-started-to-come-up snows that hit the DC area don’t necessarily think so). But here in the Pacific Northwest the daffodils, crocuses, and primroses are blooming away. It’s raining, of course, but things are blooming. And chefs are starting to talk about “spring food” ad nauseum.

I think of “spring food” as those things that are available (or are only supposed to be available) for a short window during the spring months, and that chefs clutch at because they’re sick to death of coming up with new ways to serve Hubbard squash and parsnips. Some of them are kind of yucky, frankly.

Exhibit A in the yucky category is morel mushrooms. These things look like partially shriveled sponges with a stem. I actually like mushrooms (cooked, anyway), but I can’t get past the appearance of morels. They’re considered a big treat, and restaurant menus offer all kinds of things with and under morel mushroom sauces, but their appeal just eludes me.

Fiddlehead ferns run a close second to morel mushrooms. I suppose after a winter of near-starvation, little curled bits of fern might look appetizing, but I’m not sure of that, even. I think I can’t get past the idea that I’d be eating fern. At no other time of the year do we seriously consider eating something that many people keep as a houseplant (unless you’re into eating cactus, which I am not). Yet these are considered a rare delicacy, and many people rush to farmers markets searching for them.

My West coast friends won’t recognize the shad as a spring food (or maybe even at all), but I’ve known perfectly normal East coast people who go berserk when the shad are running. Once when I was about 12 we were invited to the house of some friends of my parents for a shad dinner. As far as I can tell, shad is just fish, and I’ve never been one to get particularly excited about fish. The truly awful part of this dinner was the shad roe. I know some people like fish eggs. I know some people like Yani, too. I didn’t like shad roe (or really, any roe. I don’t much care for Yani, either). Part of it may have been a texture thing—I had braces at the time, and I took one bite of the stuff and it all squished up into my braces and felt…really gross. I’ve never really been inspired to try it again.

Many people I know are crazy for asparagus. It’s this great indulgence. I don’t like it. I’ve eaten it a couple of times, usually in a situation where I’m a guest at someone’s home and it would be rude not to, and I just can’t warm up to the stuff. I find it bitter and metallic tasting. I get really tired of the magazine articles this time of year that gush about fresh asparagus and how wonderful it is and all the fabulous things you can do with it. I just don’t get it.

Lamb, on the other hand, I do get. I love lamb. I know it means the demise of cute cuddly little creatures, but it’s so good that I overlook that. In this country we mostly eat either leg of lamb or rack of lamb, and I’m OK with both of those, but I also would like to see some more variety in what’s available to us. Lamb steaks, lamb backstrap—these things are hard to find. I’ve read recipes for lamb neck that sound pretty decent, although I understand it’s not an easy cut of meat to cook. For many people, Easter dinner is lamb. My grandmother has been known to serve it for Christmas dinner too. I find it a little odd at Christmas, and its constant availability takes something away from it.

Often the Easter lamb is served with new red potatoes. The problem with “new” potatoes these days is that there never seems to be a time when they’re not available, so it’s hard to get excited about them just in the spring. There are recipes all year long for “new” potato salad and the like. This is actually similar to the problem I have with lamb, and asparagus too (except that I actually like new potatoes): it just seems to be available all year long now. People serve asparagus for Christmas dinner (my grandmother actually did last year—along with the leg of lamb). It’s the “vegetable” with entrees in restaurants all year long. Things lose their specialness if you just serve them all the time.

That’s the complaint I have with ham at Easter. I like ham OK. It’s not my favorite, but it can be pretty tasty. The thing is, it’s available the whole year around. I can walk into my local Honeybaked Ham store any day of the year and get a ham. So again, I’ve started to not identify it with spring because it’s so universally available.

However, I do like the longer days, the fact that it’s often warmer (except when those unexpected snowstorms hit), and the fact that more and better fresh produce is coming my way. What I seem to have issues with is the food that’s available right now. It seems like I either don’t like it, or that it’s not unusual or rare enough for me to get excited about it in the spring. Clearly, that’s my own problem to deal with. At least I don’t have to figure out something interesting to do with a Hubbard squash for the 63rd night in a row.

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