Spring feeds culinary fever

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Amanda Hesser, like many chefs, is passionate about the month of April. Writing in her recent cookbook, &uot;The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside,&uot; Hesser redirects readers to the Latin root of April, which is aperire.

It means, simply, &uot;to open.&uot;

&uot;This opening happens in the garden, in the woods, even in humans. Buds and birds burst forth from nature’s womb, the fallow earth steadily fills, and eventually we emerge from our sleepy state in March and break out of the house &uot; writes Hesser, whose book chronicles her year spent cooking in a French chateau and cultivating a friendship with the resident gardener.

&uot;Despite rain and cold, our minds turn toward thoughts of sun, flowers, fresh air ..&uot;

In short, April brings the dawn of spring fever – a fever fed in cooks by the tender young asparagus shoots found in gardens and grocers, or the artichokes, green and ripe for steaming. That fever, moreover, hints at what is to come in May, when spring brings forth a culinary bounty – peas, beans, herbs, and more.

The award-winning chef and cookbook author Alfred Portale modestly describes May as &uot;the Big Bang of the culinary year.&uot; In his newest volume, the chef and co-owner of Gotham Bar and Grill offers dozens of spring recipes, from chilled pea soup to veal chops with spring leeks and soft polenta. His &uot;12 Seasons Cookbook&uot; is a journey through the year – a journey mapped not by the traditional calendar, but by a culinary one dictated by the farmer’s market and gardens across America.

&uot;If a chef rather than an astronomer had devised the calendar, the year would begin not in January but in May,when the vegetables that appear are a cook’s dream,&uot; Portales writes. Spring, he says, &uot; is the time of life beginning anew, of optimism and promise, and this spirit is revealed in the fragile shade of green that infuses the entire landscape – a pale, expectant hue that announces tender young buds and shoots as they sprout into being.&uot;

That joy of spring, that spring fever if you will, runs rampant even in the Deep South,where blooming azaleas and breezy evenings beckon us to patios and porches for evening meals and visits with friends – old and new.

And while we’ll talk about our gardens – when to plant the tomatoes, which plants are waiting in the wings to be put into the ground – we can enjoy these recipes which celebrate the birth of the season the birth of spring.

Shrimp and Corn Salad

Serves 4

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

5 ears of corn, kernel cut from cob

2 tablespoons minced peeled ginger

2 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 cup canned black beans, rinsed

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 cup chopped green onions

4 cups mixed salad greens

2 tomatoes, cut into wedges

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Heat vegetable oil in a large deep skillet over medium high heat.

Add the shrimp and saut\u00E9 until cooked through, this should take about 2 minutes per side. Remove the shrimp and add the corn, ginger and garlic to the same skillet and saut\u00E9 for two minutes.

Return the shrimp to the skillet. Add black beans, butter and sugar, stir occasionally, cooking until the butter melts. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the salad greens among the four plates and spoon the shrimp mixture over them. Garnish with the tomatoes and cilantro.

&160;

Braised Chicken with Scallion Puree’

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 small chicken ( about 31/2 or 4 pounds) cut into four pieces

Coarse or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

25 scallions, trimmed (leaving as much green on as possible) and sliced 1/4 inch thick

1/3 cup white wine

2 medium potatoes, peeled and halved

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 tablespoons heavy cream.

In a shallow braising pan fitted with a lid, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Season the chicken parts with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pan, skin side down, and saut\u00E9 until it is very brown but not burned, 10 to 12 minutes.

Turn the chicken and add two-thirds of the sliced scallion, sprinkling it over and around the chicken. Finish browning the chicken, 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a plate. Spread the scallions in the pan so they softens and browns a little, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Pour the wine over the scallions and reduce by half, stirring to scrape up any pan drippings.

Add the chicken back to the pan, along with the potatoes, and pour enough stock to come two-thirds up the side of the chicken. Set the cover on the pan so it lies askew and reduce the heat to low – it should simmer gently. Braise the chicken until the meat falls easy from a fork, 45 to 55 minutes.

Heat the oven to 175 degrees Farenheit.

When the chicken is done, remove it to a plate and keep it warm in the oven. Strain the braising juices, reserving the potato and scallion.

Add the potato and scallion to a food processor and pulse a few times until the potato is just crushed (puling any longer will turn the mixture into starchy goo.) Remove the blade from the processor and, using a rubber spatula, stir the cream into the mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, skim the braising juices of any excess fat. Return the braising juices to the pan and reduce over high heat to a concentrated, highly flavored jus, about 1 cup of liquid. Lower the heat to medium, add the reserved raw scallion to the liquid, and simmer until just wilter, 1 to 2 minutes.

To serve, spread the scallion puree on a serving dish, lay the chicken on top and spoon a little jus with scallion over the chicken and puree. Serve, passing the remaining jus and scallion separately.

Serve with a fresh asparagus salad and bread.

Adapted from &uot;The Cook and the Gardener&uot; by Amanda Hesser

&160;

Carrot and Bay Leaf Salad

Sea salt

6 to 8 medium carrots (about 3/4 to 1 pound), trimmed and peeled

2 bay leaves

1 clove garlic

Coarse or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

About 1/3 cup good-quality olive oil

Fill a medium saucepan with water, season with salt, and bring the water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare the carrots: Pinching the wide end of a carrot between your fingers or holding it down with a fork, use a vegetable peeler to peel along the length of the carrot from the wide end to the narrow end – you’ll get more out of the carrot by peeling in this direction.

Peel one strip then turn the carrot over so it has a flat side to rest on a peel from the other side. You will end up with long wide strips, which should be thin enough to wrap around your thumb without snapping.

Continue peeling until you can no longer make nice wide strips. Save the stub of the carrot for stock. Peel all the carrots in this manner.

When the water comes to full boil, pile the carrot strips into the water in handfuls and stir so that they all fit in the water. Bring the water back to a boil and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the carrot strips have relaxed slightly but are still crisp (they should just break when pinched); their color should intensify.

Have a bowl of cold water ready. Drain the carrots and plunge them into the cold water to stop the cooking. Drain again, then lay the strips loosely on a dish towel so they dry thoroughly. If they are at all wet when it’s time to pour the oil over them, they will repel the oil.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the carrots, bay leaves and garlic. Taste a carrot. If you put enough sea salt in the boiling water, you will not need to season them any further, but if not, season with both salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour the olive oil over them and toss gently to mix.

Press the carrots down so they are compacted together and well-dressed with oil. Press a piece of plastic wrap down onto them. Refrigerate and let marinate for at least eight hours.

Before serving, let the salad sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes so the olive oil loosens up. Then toss to mix once more and taste for seasoning. Transfer to a serving bowl and use a fork to lift and fluff the ribbons of carrot. Discard the garlic.

The bay leaves, however, should be made visible for &uot;eye appeal.&uot; If you are lucky enough to have a bay tree, you can arrange the salad on top of a bed of bay leaves on a simple flat white plate.

Adapted from &uot;The Cook and the Gardener&uot; by Amanda Hesser