Niman

A Culinary Journey Through a Spring Garden

by Pascale Beale-Groom

The drizzle and sometimes-gray sky of winter is fading behind us, mirroring an ebbing tide, retreating into the distance. Left in the tide’s wake are all sorts of ocean-going creatures that take this twice-daily break as an opportunity to hunt for food or doze in the pools. The turn of the season is similar to this. The first of the spring flowers peek their stems and heads above the ground as the weather warms up, only to retreat a little when a final winter blast streaks across the sky.

Then, as the days lengthen, the garden picks up steam. Shoots sprout and peas spring, their tentacles curl on climbing frames. Pods grow and ripen. Spring showers nurture the soil where the raw materials for culinary marvels dwell. There are fronds of fresh fennel, sweet green garlic bulbs, a sudden bloom of morel mushrooms and the fruit trees fill with blossoms. Meandering through an early spring garden one senses the new year’s crop emerging from the earth. Long dormant plants have pushed their way into the fresh air. Tulips dance in the wind. A pot of daffodils in the kitchen brings a ray of sunlight—fresh clear sunlight that is an echo of the new season.

The spring garden yields some of the great treasures of the kitchen, among them white asparagus. There are a few passionate gardeners who will tend these fragile stems, carefully mounding the earth around their stalks as they grow, ensuring that they never see daylight, thus preserving their pale creamy color. As much as I love growing fruits and vegetables, I admit that I have never mastered this one. However, coming across them in a local farmer’s field was a revelation—akin to discovering a hidden, precious gem.

Asparagus, a royal treat, has grown in Europe and Egypt for more than 2,000 years. The green variety graced the tables of Roman emperors and was a particular favorite of King Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil. White asparagus made its first appearance in France in the mid-1600s and has become a specialty of many European cuisines, particularly in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, where it is served in myriad ways. I have always felt that the simpler the better—with vinaigrette perhaps or warm butter or a light herb sauce, any of which would complement the delicate flavor of this vegetable.

Hanging above the delicate rows of asparagus in this nascent garden, a harvest of fava beans and spring peas waits to be plucked from their bright pods. These hidden, tiny orbs—a riot of vibrant greens—married in a zesty and crisp salad, are the perfect complement to a dish that evokes the season: spring lamb. The latter is now a misnomer, as lamb is now available year round due to the advances (if one wishes to call it that) in animal husbandry, and yet few dishes are as tied to a season as lamb.

Lamb dishes are steeped in centuries of culinary traditions, notably as a central part of Easter celebrations. However, predating Christian customs, lamb served at this time of year has its origins in Judaism where it is one of the traditional foods served during the Passover Seder. My family has a penchant for lamb, and it has always been featured as the main course of our Easter repasts. It is usually in the form of a leg of lamb, often served with a dish of flageolet beans. This was a hearty dish that complemented the often-freezing weather that occurred as we celebrated the spring holidays in France. Our milder Californian climate calls for a lighter touch; hence the salad and the fava beans are a tender tribute to the flageolet.

If my savory taste buds are captivated by white asparagus and fava beans in this embryonic season, then the sweet ones are enthralled with a fruit whose season is, alas, far too short. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “Spring has returned. The earth is like a child that knows poems.” I like to think that earth’s poetry is perfectly encapsulated in this fruit. Its pale pink and milky white blossoms are one of the first to emerge in our springtime gardens. It is a floral hint of the treats to come. It is the simple apricot. Yet these small golden-orange spheres offer a plethora of gustatory choices. Eating them freshly picked off the tree is a delight, particularly when perfectly ripe. They are juicy, succulent, tender and sweet. They can be poached, roasted, dried and made into preserves.

My admiration for all things connected with apricots stems from my grandmother’s garden in the French Alps. She had half a dozen apricot trees, which bore a staggering number of fruit, all dutifully turned into compotes and jams. The children of the house hauled the laden baskets up from the garden and into her kitchen. Preparing the fruit for apricot jam was an all-day project. We usually ended the day with sticky fingers, smiles on our faces and the promise of her apricot clafoutis for dessert. We would also ceremoniously carry back to London (where we lived at the time) two jars of this extraordinary jam—truly the essence of apricots, captured in a glistening amber-hued mélange that was her trademark. We made it last for as long as we could, for it would be months before we could get our hands on any more.

Years passed and I began making my own jams. Frustrated by my inability to recreate the flavor she had in her preserves, I scoured many a farmers market to find organically grown fruit that were similar in taste and fragrance to hers. I am delighted to say that our local markets have a wealth of apricot
growers who
will flood our tables with these precious gems and whose fruit make wonderful preserves. However, don’t wait too long—apricot means early-ripening or precocious, stemming from the Latin word praecoquus—or the season will be over!

 


Pascale Beale-Groom grew up in England and France surrounded by a family that has always been passionate about food, wine and the arts. She was taught to cook by her French mother and grandmother. In 1999 she opened Montecito Country Kitchen, a Mediterranean cooking school in Santa Barbara. Her first cookbook A Menu for All Seasons—Spring, was published in 2004, and her cookbook Summer was released in early 2008. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and lives in Santa Barbara with her family.

 

Menu:

White Asparagus with a Herbed Mousseline Sauce

Herb-Crusted, Roasted

Racks of Lamb

Spring Pea and Fava Bean Salad

Apricots in Baumes de Venise

Citrus Cookies

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Categories Spring 2009