Forget the love angle on spring. This is the season when a cook’s thoughts turn to entertaining. Right now there is no end of excuses to feed friends and family, whether for Mother’s Day or graduation day or simply to share all the green freshness you’ve overindulged in at the market.
Even the word “spring” is exuberant -- which gave me a bright idea for a lively dinner party, a sit-down affair for eight with a multicultural blend of tastes and concepts. Every course is literally spring food: spring chicken, spring rolls and spring(form) cake, with a rice salad inspired by pasta primavera to add that continental touch of a lyrical translation of the season.
It all takes advantage of the best ingredients coming into their peak without resorting to reflexively reshuffling the lamb-asparagus-rhubarb holy trinity of spring cooking.
And after my favorite motto, “First you marinate the guest,” the most reliable rule of partying is to always have a theme. It gives people something to talk about in case you are running late with the main course and distracted at the stove. Even better, it relaxes the host. If something doesn’t quite turn out the way you imagine, you can still serve it proudly, knowing it makes the point. (I once did “freedom food” -- French food in reaction to the “freedom fries” era -- for a political potluck. Talk about an icebreaker.)
For spring food for this sit-down dinner, I went shopping in a sort of green frenzy, grabbing up ramps, mint, watercress, bibb lettuce and asparagus (of course) to see where they would lead, and then adding a few other seasonal sensations, such as strawberries. (Raspberries usually get more play, but to me they belong in summer.)
Rolls that rock
THE idea of spring rolls just amused me, but the reality fits surprisingly well into any menu because no one can resist them, and because there is a break before the more Western dishes to let palates recalibrate between hemispheres. Eating them feels festive because they are wrapped like a present in lettuce leaves with sprigs of herbs to dip into a pungent sauce.
They are also a great starter because you can serve them as either finger food or plated fare -- eat them drippingly, standing up, or daintily, sitting down.
Spring rolls are nothing like summer rolls, which are soft and pliable and usually made of all raw ingredients. They’re crisp and crunchy and fried. Nina Simonds, a cookbook author who is an authority on Asian food, says the name can be traced to the Chinese custom of indulging in symbolic foods at their New Year, which they call the spring festival because it welcomes the new season. Spring rolls resemble gold ingots and are eaten for prosperity.
As a filling, crab seems most suitably springy, especially enhanced by two quintessential seasonal herbs -- mint and chives -- with cilantro. The dipping sauce is light but gutsy enough to cut through the richness: Vietnamese fish sauce, lime juice and sugar combined in roughly equal proportions, with chopped ramps for pungency and garlic-chile paste for heat. (The sauce would be just as good with plain, steamed asparagus.)
Spring rolls need to be fried just before serving, but the good thing is that you can fill and wrap them up to a day in advance. The skins, or wrappers, are pliable and easy to work with, whether you buy the frozen kind or soak traditional rice paper wrappers.
For the spring chicken, the only option is literal: poussin, the very definition of the term. These baby birds each serve one, and a chicken on every plate has a celebratory feel. The tender meat has a mild flavor, but stuffing chopped ramps under the skin will perfume them from the inside out.
Poussins take happily to most cooking methods -- roasting, braising, stewing, grilling, even sauteing. But broiling is an underutilized technique these days. When the chickens are broiled, their skin turns crisp and the meat gets juicy, so they don’t need a sauce, just a bed of watercress leaves dressed in coarse-grain mustard, olive oil and lemon juice.
You can even serve the poussins at room temperature; the greens make them seem more salad-like anyway. (The advantage is that they can be cooked in advance.) If you don’t have enough space under the flames, the same formula will work for grilling. Butterflying these birds lets them cook beautifully. For really crispy skin, they will benefit from at least an hour sitting naked in the refrigerator with a dusting of salt (and pepper) to dry them out.
Pasta primavera started me thinking about a seasonal rice salad, the kind of dish that would be elegant enough for a dinner party, but perfectly at home at a picnic. The original pasta primavera recipe, most often attributed to Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque in New York City, includes broccoli, zucchini, tomatoes and basil, none of which is exactly in peak supply in May. But why not reach for morels, asparagus, peas, dill and maybe a ramp or four?
MY primavera is the essence of the season, and you can prepare it well in advance -- even the day before. Turning it into a make-ahead salad yields a decidedly greener side dish than pasta primavera would ever be. As a closer for the party, the combination of almonds and strawberries is one of the most harmonious flavor pairings of the season. A tart would be the obvious way to match make, but it’s missing an essential element, the verbal one. Not many desserts go by “spring,” so in this case the pan gets top billing: a springform cake.
Ground almonds substitute for flour, with a little body added by panko or other fine, dry bread crumbs, with egg whites beaten stiff to leaven and lighten the batter. (As the cake cools, it falls a bit as it settles.)
Absolutely a classic, the cake turns up in countless cookbooks, but it tastes spring-fresh.
The sauce to pour over or pool under it is also simply traditional. Strawberries are macerated with lemon juice and sugar to intensify their sweetness and juiciness, then pureed with a bit of Cointreau or Grand Marnier. It all ends on a high note.