If you live in the South, spring is well under way and summer produce is on the horizon. In the North, you’re just getting your first taste of spring produce. The rest of the country? Somewhere in between. Wherever you live, though, the fresh, wholesome flavors of this spring menu are easy to come by, both in the market and in the kitchen. For a full complement of green, add a salad of watercress and sliced strawberries, dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
Polenta with Leeks, Wilted Greens and Mushrooms
Spinach can be used for this dish, but chard, beet, and dandelion greens are even better this time of year—and they add wonderful nutrients. The herbs in the polenta add a sprightly flavor; use one or a combination. The polenta can be served homestyle straight from the pot—soft and thick—with the topping spooned over all, or prepared in advance as described here. If time is short, buy prepared polenta at the grocery store. While your topping is cooking, slice and sauté or grill the polenta.
11/2 quarts water
11/2 teaspoons salt
11/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
About 1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley and chives
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring the water to a boil in 1 large nonreactive pot. Add salt and slowly stir the cornmeal into the boiling water in a steady stream, stirring continuously. When the mixture begins to bubble, reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring regularly so that it doesn’t stick, for 35 to 40 minutes; stir the garlic, herbs, and Parmesan in during the last 5 to 10 minutes. The polenta should be thick. At this point, it can be served hot or molded and cooled as follows.
If molded, pour the polenta into a lightly oiled loaf pan. When cool, turn out of the pan and slice 5/8-inch thick, then cut each slice in half. Lightly brush the squares with olive oil and place them on a baking sheet under the broiler, on a griddle over medium heat, or on a grill over a medium hot fire. Depending on your heat source, the polenta should be cooked for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, or until it is golden brown on the edges. Assemble the dish immediately or reheat the polenta when you are ready to assemble.
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, rinsed and cleaned, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
2 bunches beet greens and 1 bunch chard, spinach, or dandelion greens, cleaned, stems removed, and chopped (or use an equivalent amount of spinach only)
3 large cloves garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
About 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms: oyster, morels, shiitake, or cremini, cleaned and sliced
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add leeks and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chard and beet stems, stir, and sauté for 4 minutes. Add garlic and stir for a minute. Add greens, cover, and let wilt for a few minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove from heat and season generously with salt and pepper.
Sauté or grill the mushrooms with a little olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Cook them until they just start to give up their juices, 3 to 5 minutes for most types will do; do not overcook. Set aside.
Reheat the polenta squares on a lightly oiled baking sheet in a 375°F oven if necessary.
Place the polenta squares in a serving dish or on individual plates. Top with greens mixture, and then the mushrooms. Salt and pepper generously. Serve immediately.
Asparagus Soup with Chives
Depending where you live, late February through late May is the season for local asparagus. Happily, it’s also the time when fresh, piquant chives are popping up. This light soup, which brings the two together, gets its substance and texture from potatoes, not cream.
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled 11/2 pounds asparagus 5 cups simmering stock (vegetable or chicken) 1 medium shallot, minced 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/4 cup chopped chives Salt and freshly ground pepper Chopped chives
Cut potatoes into one-inch chunks (there should be about 21/2 cups) and bring them to a boil in 3 cups lightly salted water. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until fork-tender. Drain and set aside.
Bring stock to a simmer. Meanwhile, wash asparagus and break off the tough stems. Break or cut the tender stalks into 3 or 4 pieces and add to the simmering stock. Reduce heat, cover, and cook until just tender. If the stalks are pencil thin, this should take 3 to 5 minutes; if thicker, allow 5 to 7 minutes.
Reserve about a third of the cooked asparagus and puree the rest with the stock and potatoes in batches in a food processor or blender.
Soften the shallot in the butter over low heat. Return pureéd soup to the pan with the asparagus and add the shallot, butter, chives, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the soup just to a simmer over low heat and ladle into warm bowls. Garnish each bowl with a few chopped chives.
Lemon Balm Custard with Rhubarb Sauce
Makes 6 to 8 Servings
This can be prepared a day in advance. The recipe makes a little more sauce than needed, but it keeps in the refrigerator for a week, and it’s great on vanilla ice cream, waffles, pancakes, biscuits, or stirred into yogurt or oatmeal.
21/2 cups milk
1/2 cup fresh lemon balm (or substitute 1 tablespoon dried lemon verbena or 2 fresh bay leaves)
Generous teaspoon grated lemon zest (the yellow part of the peel)
About 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
2 extra-large whole eggs
2 extra-large egg yolks
In a heavy-bottomed nonreactive pan, heat the milk with the herbs, lemon zest, and the vanilla bean if you are using it, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for about 1/2 hour. Meanwhile place the custard cups in a shallow baking pan.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Add sugar to the milk-herb mixture and gently reheat to dissolve the sugar, stirring occasionally. In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs and egg yolks and a pinch of salt. Pour or spoon about 1/2 cup of the warm milk into the eggs and whisk to incorporate. Then add all of the milk to the eggs and blend well. Add vanilla extract, if not using the bean.
Pour the custard mixture through a strainer to remove the herbs, zest, and vanilla bean, pressing them gently to remove their essence. Pour the custard into the custard cups. Carefully add enough hot water to the pan to come about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the custard cups. Place in the oven and bake until the custards are set, about 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove the custard cups from the hot water and cool on a baking rack. Serve warm or cool and refrigerate.
If you have lemon balm, add a handful of the leaves to the rhubarb sauce along with the rest of the ingredients, and remove them before serving.
About 4 cups chopped fresh rhubarb (4 large stalks)
1/2 cup orange juice, preferably fresh-squeezed
1/2 cup sugar
1- to 2-inch piece vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Few dashes fresh grated nutmeg
Scrub the rhubarb, trim the ends, and cut lengthwise down the center. Cut into 1/4-inch slices.
Combine rhubarb, orange juice, sugar, vanilla bean, nutmeg, and herbs if you are using them, in a large heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan and place over medium high heat. Stir, cover, and bring to a simmer, which will take just a few minutes. Remove lid, stir well, reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lid and stir.
The sauce should be about the consistency of a thick soup. If you want it thicker, cook it a few minutes more with the lid off. Remove the herbs and vanilla bean pieces before serving. Serve warm or at cool room temperature.