Cooking for the Season (Spring)

A lecture originally presented at the Bree-town Hall by guest speaker Locksley, proprietor of The Broken Cask, as part of an ongoing lecture series.

As most of you sagacious folk have probably noticed, spring has come at last to Bree-land. It's that lovely, fresh time of year when daffodils and crocuses jump up from the damp ground, full of colour and vibrant energy, and are very quickly trampled by the undiscerning feet of playing children.

As flowers and children both know, spring is a time for growing. It is also a time for cleaning. We all remember to dust the foyers and polish the silverware in spring, but most of forget that our palates need cleaning, as well.

Winter is a season of thick and heavy foods that stick to the ribs and sit heavily in the gut. Chunky stews, dense breads, cured meats, and root vegetable roasts make us as sluggish and melancholy as the bleakness of the winter landscape.

And so then we have spring, a season of crisp, green food. It is the season of cucumber sandwiches and boiled eggs, of strawberries with cream, light salads tossed with blueberry vinaigrette, and young shoots of asparagus cooked in garlic butter sauce.

Let us begin with what is arguably the most important decision you can make during food preparation: how you season it.

Many folk use the terms "herbs" and "spices" interchangeably, but this is a bit inaccurate. The definition of an herb is any seasoning made from the leaves of a particular plant. Herbs are generally mild in flavour, and are used to add a quiet, ambient infusion of taste to a dish. They are abundant here in Bree.

Spices are any seasoning derived from the roots, flowers, fruits, seeds, or bark of a plant, and these are usually ground into powder. They have a much more pungent flavour, and are used to add more of a kick to a dish. They delight (and sometimes abuse) the tongue. Unfortunately, most spices are harder to come by here in Bree-land, as they favour warmer, more southerly climates like the ones with which we happen to be at war today. The acquisition of them can cost you a fortune, but most, myself included, agree that they are worth every copper.

Spring is an excellent season for beginning cooks, because very little seasoning is actually needed. A good cook knows when to put the salt shaker away and let the natural flavour of ingredients conduct a symphony of their own.

Take, for example, one of my favourite vegetables: cauliflower. It is assumed to be as bland as it is colourless, but this modest vegetable has a delicate, complex flavour that is completely unique to it. It's an excellent ingredient to have on hand, because it can complement almost any kind of dish, such as the ones we'll discuss now.

Spring is a good time for chilled soups. They're smooth, light, and packed with flavour. At the Cask, we often make cream of asparagus, potato leek, spring pea, creamy onion, tarragon carrot, and my favourite, cauliflower cheese.

Most folk don't think of fruit as something that goes in a soup, but spring is an excellent time to experiment with smooth, yogurt-based soup such as plum and red wine, honey and white peach, melon ginger, and cherry.

The key to a light spring soup is in the simmering. You must let it heat slowly, and gently, so that all the ingredients being to fall apart and mix together. Then it takes only a bit of stirring to whip them into something smooth, frothy, and delectably consistent.

Almost every soup is made with the same, simple process. You begin with heating oil in the pot, and then you add the seasoning. For savoury soups, this is the time at which you saute the garlic and onions. Putting the seasoning in first allows it to diffuse evenly through the food. Adding it after results in alternating pockets of bland and overpowering.

Next you add the main ingredients, such as chopped potatoes or mashed peas for savoury, and minced melon or pitted cherries for sweet. Then comes the stock—or, in the case of sweet soups, the yogurt. I prefer a vegetable stock, since it's so easy to make and I often have it left over, but many cooks swear by chicken stock for its taste.

This is where the simmering begins, and this is not a quick process. Let it be known that soups are not a dish for the impatient! The ingredients need time to soften, to let their flavours all bubble up together. It will take you time to learn the perfect time and portions, but once you master one soup, you can approach any other with confidence.

Next we'll talk about salads, for there is no better time to make and serve salads than right now. There are an abundance of greens you can use for the bulk of a salad, from the light and crunchy buttercrisp lettuce to juicy baby spinach.

Most salads are accompanied by garnishes of a sort, usually shredded and almost always raw. Sliced cucumbers, shredded carrot, mint leaves, and diced peppers are just a few examples. But beware the cook who tosses ingredients together willy nilly! There is an art to salads, as with any dish, and the mingling of clashing flavours can produce woeful results.

The best way to learn what ingredients go in which salads is to pay attention and experiment. Read cookbooks, try them in taverns, ask your friends, and try different things in your own kitchen. Mark my words: you WILL create atrocities! But eventually you may also create something entirely new that professional chefs like me will be green with envy for not discovering first.

Think of salads as a four-part dish. You start with the foundation, usually the greens. Then you add the major ingredients, like carrots, grilled peppers, or shredded chicken. Next come the garnishes, smaller ingredients that are there to add pungent flavour, such as toasted nuts or shredded cheese. Then you finish with the dressing. Spring is a good time to experiment with fruit-based dressings. My favourite is a raspberry reduction.

The trick with salads is in keeping them fresh. Spoilage is the chief nemesis of every cook. It's counter-intuitive, but when catering a multi-course menu, prepare the salad last, and serve it first. They're a gentle way to introduce your guests to your flavour theme, and a good way to distract them while you scramble to put the finishing touches on your roast still in the oven.

After the salads and soups, we traditionally serve the appetizers. Spring is a fantastic time for appetizers, because the season is all about light, small dishes. Because you don't need to build around a central ingredient, there's also much more room for creativity.

My standard rule of thumb when planning ingredients is to ask three questions: Will it fill my stomach, how many can I eat, and do I have to use a fork? The perfect appetizer leaves your guests hungry, is tempting enough that they want more, but not a great deal of it, and can be eaten without utensils or any particular mess.

Your appetizers are your opening act. You want them to leave your guests in anticipation of what comes next. A great way to do this is with wraps, patties, and dumplings. Try stuffed mushrooms, boiled barley in grape leaves, or battered potato patties. I don't know why, but people absolutely love food wrapped in other food.

I try to incorporate as much green into spring appetizers as possible. An old Cask favourite is flatbread baked with an herb sauce, and there is always toasted bread with pesto and soft cheese. Roasted mushrooms and asparagus are excellent when paired with butter sauce and something like slivered almonds. And of course, no spring menu is complete without lots of peas—raw, boiled, mashed, or steamed.

You want to keep appetizers as raw as possible, because so much character (and a good deal of nutrients) is lost when you cook an ingredient. If you must cook, try to limit your methods to boiling, baking, and dry-roasting. You do not want your guests' tongues so heavy with flavour that they cannot appreciate your main dish!

And speaking of main dishes, I'll tell you right off to put away those fantasies of clove-studded honey-glazed pork, and braised lamb steaks, and beef pot pies. Remember, we are aiming for light, and there is nothing light about red meat. Spring is a time for fish and fowl.

In spring especially, it is easy to forego meat altogether, which I would recommend to anyone for a period of time, in order to cleanse the system. Beans, grains, and hearty vegetables can stand in just as well for our favourite cooked animals.

On the matter of cooked animals, experiment with duck, quail, grouse, and pheasant. Delicate little birds have spring written all over them. They are light, flavourful, and modest things. They can be stuffed with minced vegetables— here again we have food within other food —or served on beds of greens and grains. They absorb flavour wonderfully, so be bold with your sauces!

Chives and goat cheese, or garlic and herb, apricot and wine, or wild berry glazes. The sweet little birds will take up all these flavours readily. But for the love of thyme and tarragon, pay attention when you're preparing them! There is nothing so disappointing as a tough and stringy bird.

Fish is your next best bet for main spring dishes, if you insist on having something animal on your plate. Whitefish cooperates particularly well with sweet jellies and cream sauces. Pair it with a creamy truffle sauce and you will not want to stop eating it. I enjoy catfish in a spicy bean sauce, though it's perhaps more of a summer dish. Spring is a good time to bake salmon and slather it with herby things, like mustard and watercress, or sorrel and pea shoots.

Fish is a bit more forgiving than game birds. The best way to prepare it is to bake it. Rub it with your most pungent ingredients beforehand, and bake it until it flakes under pressure from a fork. It's best served in small portions, and accompanied by lots of vegetables.

And now, we discuss everyone's favourite course: dessert. When it comes to sweet dishes, spring is all about berries. Strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and early season blueberries are wonderful raw with cream, but that doesn't make for much of a crowd dazzler.

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