And now it is May.
I grew up in Connecticut, and May was the month when everything turned green. Small leaves appeared on the trees. When "the leaves on the oak are the size of squirrels' ears" shad would start to run in the rivers. The first flowering trees were shadblum, also signifiers of shad, a fish that we ate one a year, more to celebrate spring and to have with young asparagus and buttered red potatoes than because we liked the taste.
We had many seasonal foods and traditions in our family, but right now I'm thinking of spring. My mother didn't like to cook, but she liked to watch Julia Child (she died before the Food Network came to be, but oh how she would have loved all the chefs and cooking shows.) Mim, our grandmother who lived with us, baked but didn't cook, the difference--as I see it--being that one strictly involved the oven and precise measurements, and the other requires slow burners, drifts of imagination, no certain regimen other than what is fresh, in season, and delicious.
You can probably tell I like to cook more than bake.
From the time I was fifteen I often cooked for my family. My school had "mini-week" every January, and we could choose from a slew of interesting classes not usually offered. My sophomore year I took French cooking. Sister Denise taught it in the convent next door. We made jambon persillade, coq au vin, blanquette de veau, and asperges au beure blanc. I'd learn how to prepare the meal at school, then go home and cook it for my family, with a stop at Sussman's market along the way.
Spring was a time to celebrate. There is so much beauty in every season, but the changes in spring literally feel like rebirth, the earth coming back to life. Many people speak of unbidden joy, a feeling of hope that wasn't there before. I feel a shadow. Maybe it's because my father died in April, or perhaps it's just that I am an Irish existentialist at heart, and I know not to get attached to the beauty because it will not be here forever. That's the problem, isn't it? Things won't be here forever.
But for now we have wisteria, tulips, new leaves, migrating warblers traveling the eastern flyway in great numbers, landing in our yards and parks to rest on their way north to the boreal forest. Just yesterday Anders Peltomaa reported seventeen warbler species in Central Park including a Yellow warblers, a Yellow-throated warbler, Black-and-white warblers, a Palm warbler, a Chestnut warbler and a Canada warbler. (Large numbers, the migration definitely in full swing, a "fall-out"--literally, many migrants dropping from the sky--because of the storms we have been having.)
In the woods we have elusive wildflowers such as bloodroot, trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpits. In the streams we have shad. They are swimming up the Connecticut River in their annual and mysterious migration. They are plentiful, but hard to find in fish markets because they are the devil to bone. Those who can properly filet a shad are few and far between; it's a lost art. The taste of shad is not for everyone: it reminds me of bluefish. Enough said? It's an oily fish and, on the plus side, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.
Some people, including Nero Wolfe, love shad roe.
So if you can find shad and if you like it, or if you dare, I share with you here my menu--cooked once a year, in May, when shad are running, when oak leaves are no bigger than squirrel's ears. Mim loved it, so I've named it for her. Happy May!
Mim's Baked Shad
1 shad filet per person
1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs, freshly crumbed in a Cuisinart or your favorite food mill-type apparatus.
fresh lemon juice and zest
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350. Dry shad filets with paper towel and lay skin-side down in baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a dash of fresh lemon juice. Mix bread crumbs with olive oil, enough to moisten--do use whole wheat bread because it's more full bodied and will work better with the strong flavor of shad. Add a little more salt and pepper, and a half teaspoon or so of lemon zest to the bread crumbs, then divide the mixture among the shad filets, spreading it on top, not too thin, you don't have to be artful, this is mainly seasoning.
Bake for 30 minutes or till cooked through and bread crumbs golden brown. (Check while baking, and if the bread crumbs are getting too dark, you can cover loosely with a piece of tin foil.)
The asperges au beurre blanc recipe from Sister Denise involved hard-boiled eggs, which I don't like. But if you do, you can just peel and rice a hard-boiled egg and put it on top for garnish.
Bunch of asparagus
beurre blanc (or olive oil)
Bring pot of water to boil. Prepare asparagus by holding each stalk between two hands, bending till it breaks. It will break in its natural spot, just throw away the tough inch-or-two from the bottom. Add asparagus to boiling water. (Salt the water if you like, I don't think the asparagus needs it.) Cook until the asparagus is bright green, easily pierced with the tip of a knife--5-8 minutes.
Now, you can serve the asparagus straight out of the pot if you want. Or you can drizzle it with a small amount of olive oil. Or if you are fifteen and want to impress your family and by the way feed them very well, you can serve it with beurre blanc. Don't forget to add the chopped hard boiled eggs IF and only if you like them.
1 shallot, chopped fine
4 ounces white wine
fresh juice of 1/2 lemon, strained
1 tablespoon heavy cream
12 ounces cold unsalted butter, 1/4 inch slices
salt and white pepper
Combine shallots, wine, and lemon juice in non-reactive saucepan and cook over high heat until simmered down to 2 tablespoons. Add the cream and cook until the sauce bubbles. Add butter, 1 slice at a time, whisking over low heat. Whisk continuously until all butter is added and sauce is emulsified. Pour over asparagus. This is where you garnish with hard boiled eggs if desired.
Red Potatoes á la Hubbard's Point
This is my favorite part, a vehicle for the rest of the meal. It's a very casual and most delicious dish, and requires guests to participate, in that they'll have to peel their own garlic at the end, when served.
A pound or two of the tiniest, reddest new potatoes you can find
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
cloves of garlic--don't bother peeling them
sprigs of fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 400. You want it hot.
Do not wash or peel potatoes. If necessary clean them with a dry cloth or paper towel. Cut in half or quarters, depending on how large. You want them to be about the size of a walnut. Spread olive oil on cookie sheet--don't stint. You'll use a lot, but it won't be absorbed, so you won't be consuming that much--it's for flavor and browning.
Place cut potatoes on cookie sheet, rolling in olive oil until well-covered. Add unpeeled cloves of garlic. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a couple of springs of rosemary--in one piece, not broken up.
Insert sheet into oven. As soon as you hear the oil starting to sizzle, after 10 minutes or so, remove pan and with a spatula turn the potatoes so they don't stick to the pan and so they brown on all sides. Do this a few times over about 30 minutes--cooking time depends on size of potatoes. You want to cook them until they are crispy.
Serve with cloves of garlic straight from the pan, still in their jackets, and tell your guests to peel them themselves. It will be fun for them, easier for you, and the garlic will taste delicious with the potatoes and shad, or even spread on slices of baguette.