Their dream season

Special to The Times

For the first time in more than a decade, Los Angeles has had a good and proper winter. After months of skies that more resembled Northern Europe’s than sunny Southern California’s, who isn’t dying for the familiar warmth of spring? The season is just beginning to make itself felt in the farmers markets, as tender young lettuces, spring onions, new potatoes, strawberries and asparagus slender as young bamboo shoots fill the stands.

No one’s more excited than L.A.’s chefs. Ask anyone in whites what single spring luxury he or she is looking forward to, and no one hesitates. It’s spring. Desire is clear.



Rockernwagner in Santa Monica

Spring luxury: White asparagus

What Hans Rockenwagner loves most about the appearance of white asparagus is that it “marks the end of the gray, dark winter with its root vegetables and symbolizes the lighter cuisines and all the ingredients that go with them.” In his native Germany, when white asparagus comes in, he says, it is the star attraction on menus there -- in asparagus soup, asparagus salad or simply steamed asparagus with a little hollandaise and Black Forest ham.


For the last 15 years, Rockenwagner has continued this Germanic rite of spring with a white asparagus menu, lasting from mid-April to late June. His absolutely favorite spring meal is white asparagus with veal tenderloin and a morel cream sauce. After peeling and trimming the asparagus, he simmers it till tender (about 15 to 20 minutes) in water with a little butter, sugar, salt and lemon added. Of course, Rockenwagner loves the white asparagus from Germany, but we’ll have to settle for the stuff that comes from Chile or Peru. It’s a little more bitter than the German asparagus, but the sugar counteracts that.

In any case, it takes longer than green asparagus to cook. “I prefer it cooked just a touch more than al dente,” says Rockenwagner, “so I just take a piece out and cut it and eat it to taste for when it is done. Next, saute the veal in a little oil and butter. Take out the veal and keep warm. Add some diced shallots and morels to the pan, then deglaze with Cognac. Add heavy cream, reduce, and then add a little demi-glace, a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper and maybe a dash more Cognac.”

“Then you serve it with a Pinot Gris or a Gruner Veltliner,” says Rockenwagner. Yes, chef.



Four Star Private Cuisine

Spring luxury: Petits pois

“For me the spring means petits pois,” says Alain Giraud of the first, small, sugary peas of the season. “I was at the farmers market the other day and found them. It is such a wonderful ritual, to take the peas home and shell them in the kitchen. My grandmother had this large, black cast iron pot and she would put the peas in the pot with just a touch of butter.” Giraud, the chef who opened Bastide restaurant and has since gone on to cook for private parties, still cooks the petits pois the way he learned from Grandma in France’s Correze region. “I put them in a pan with a little liquid, a little sweet onion and a little mint,” he explains. “I cook it just two or three minutes, never boil them, adding just a little butter to glaze them. And then you must eat them right away.

“I always looked forward to spending time at my grandmother’s farm,” says Giraud. “And in the spring, the anticipation of all the good things that would be appearing soon: asparagus, haricots verts, spring onions and wild strawberries. You had to be patient. The true luxury is to be connected with nature.”



Formerly of Naya in Pasadena

Spring luxury: Morels

Years before she ever thought about becoming a chef, Scooter Kanfer-Cartmill worked as a scenic artist in the film business. On location in Iowa, she went with friends to the Iowa State Fair, where she noticed a crowd gathered at one booth. “I got in line to see what was going on,” she says. “When I got to the front, there was this farmer selling deep-fried morels. He said he had so many morels growing on his property that he was feeding them to his pigs. For $3 I got this whole newspaper cone filled with French-fried morels.”


So now, come spring, she orders “gray ash” morels, those that grow out in burned forests, from her mushroom dealer. “They’re bigger and meatier than other morels,” she explains. “They’re uber morels.”

Kanfer-Cartmill dredges them in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne pepper, dips them in an egg wash, then rolls them in bread crumbs seasoned with nutmeg and thyme. Next she deep-fries them in peanut oil and puts them in a parchment cone. Finally they get a sprinkling of sea salt and thyme leaves and a dash of malt vinegar. That’s luxury.



Water Grill in Los Angeles

Spring luxury: King salmon

“KING salmon speaks to me in spring,” says LeFevre. That’s because during the first week in May the fish starts returning to the native streams to spawn, he explains. A former sous-chef at Charlie Trotter’s restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas, David LeFevre recently joined Water Grill as executive chef.

Why king salmon in the spring? “They’re anadromous, which means they are born in fresh water, and then migrate to the ocean,” he explains. “Just before returning to spawn, they gorge themselves so they can make the journey back upstream. So when you get these king salmon in the spring, you’re getting them at their maximum quality level.”

LeFevre believes in treating the fish ever so gently. First he removes the skin, and cooks it on a baking sheet in a medium hot oven until it’s crispy. Then he oil-poaches it, using high-quality olive oil with tarragon, rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. You poach over much lower heat than you’d think. “It should feel like the temperature of a hot bath,” says LeFevre. “If it gets too hot, then I cool it down by adding more olive oil.” When done, the fish will be slightly orange-colored and fairly soaked with oil; blot it to remove the excess.

“Spring always makes me want young, fresh vegetables,” he says, so he serves the salmon with a puree of stinging nettles and garnishes it with fiddlehead ferns. Be sure to handle the nettles with latex gloves, says LeFevre. Use only the leaves; discard the stems. To make the puree, sweat a little garlic and shallots in oil, add the nettles and a little chicken stock, and stew until the nettles are soft. When they’re cool, puree them with a touch of creme fraiche and season with fleur de sel. Fiddleheads -- another spring luxury -- can be treated just like string beans: Trim the ends, blanch them, then saute in olive oil.

“The fiddleheads are crunchy, with this great earthy flavor,” says LeFevre. “I put the puree on the bottom of the plate, then the salmon and surround it with these great little spring potatoes that I get from Weiser Farms. To top it off, I sprinkle on a little fleur de sel, pepper and some thyme leaves.”