Perhaps, instead of his shadow, Punxsutawney Phil should have gone in search of fava beans. That would be more useful after a relentless winter like this one, the longest stew season of recent memory.
"Every time it seemed like it was going to end, it kept going. I could not wait to see the end of this winter," says Brian Ricci, chef of Kennett in Queen Village. "I'm definitely thinking about what's coming from the farms and what we'll do for our spring menu."
Though not all of your favorite spring vegetables may be available yet, there are ways to cook ourselves out of the spiritual haze in the meantime. In other words, grabbing the first harvests and faking the rest. If this approach isn't entirely seasonal, it's at least aspirational, bridging the gap between what is and what will be in markets.
Salads in general seem much more appealing right after months of rib-sticking food. "The flavors of winter are typically kind of obtuse - root vegetables with a dense texture. But after a few months of that," Ricci says, "you want foods with more texture and bite."
Soft-cooked vegetables are less appealing than raw or semi-cooked salads of shaved fennel and onion, marinated kale, or just seared broccoli.
A hint of color can go a long way toward creating the illusion of spring at the table. "Pick out produce at the market that stimulates the eye, whether it's purple cabbage or potatoes, Tuscan kale, or candy-striped beets," Ricci says.
And watercress, one of the first true gifts of spring, is already available for seasonal salads.
"I love watercress, and I think it is underused," says Ricci, who tosses it with rhubarb, mint, chervil, and a shave of ricotta salata for his spring salad.
A sprinkling of chopped herbs or microgreens adds the color and the freshness we so desperately crave right about now. Some especially springlike choices are dill, chervil, mint, tarragon, and parsley. "You'd be surprised: When you add herbs to a rudimentary roasted vegetable like a potato or parsnip, you can really coax more complexity out of it. That little bit of flavor gets you out of the doldrums," Ricci says. Another tactic would be to let the herbs take over - blanch and puree the leaves into a sauce like a salsa verde, a pesto, or an aioli, and drape it over potatoes or fish.
A year-round staple on his menu is a roasted chickpea "salad" with Greek yogurt, lemon juice, and mint that makes a nice side for roasted chicken, seared fish, or grilled lamb.
"Dried beans are always available, and if you add some lemon zest and juice, and a bit of smoked paprika, you give them some depth of flavor."
The citrus fruits of winter also provide needed splashes of tang and bright bursts of color. The addition of sectioned citrus to salads, a squeeze of lemon or orange juice to cooked vegetables or fish, and a sprinkling of zest to baked goods can be just the boost the snowed-under soul needs.
Other acids, like white wine, verjus, and vinegar, equally awaken the palate. Michael O'Halloran at Bistro 7 delves into his cellared preserves this time of year to get him through the last chilly days. Pickled anything is always a pick-me-up.
Spooned into a sauce or dressing, sour or slightly sour dairy products such as yogurt, buttermilk, and crème fraîche offer a subtler lift, as well as a creamy texture that's a nice halfway point from winter's heft to summer's airiness.
Even the most seasonally obsessed cook is bound to crave some tomatoes right about now. Go ahead, says O'Halloran. Just use cherry tomatoes. "They won't be as good, of course, as what you'd get in August, but if you braise them with a flaky fish and fennel, along with some olives, white wine, and lemon, it won't matter."
One of the joys of warmer-weather food is its simplicity. O'Halloran looks forward to making Parisian gnocchi, tossed with spring chanterelles, tarragon, and a bit of garlic and olive oil. He might also gravitate toward a main-course salad, such as an Asian-inspired barbecued salmon over greens.
Heavy cuts of meat that have been braised into shreds can be retired in favor of roasted chicken, pan-seared fish, or meatless entrees. Those elusive fava beans can always be procured in their dried or frozen form.
Ginger and lemongrass are ideal aromatics that bring to both savory and sweet dishes a perfumed optimism. Cookbook author Katie Quinn Davies' airily delicate Lemon Lime and Ginger Mousse With Hazelnut Crunch is like eating sunshine (if sunshine had cream).
"This time of year is always tricky," O'Halloran says. "You can start transitioning to a new style of cooking, but then all of a sudden, it's cold again. When I see the wild asparagus showing up, I'll know it's for real."
Makes 4 servings
2 cups cooked dried or canned chickpeas, drained and patted dry with paper towels
1 teaspoon smoked paprika, plus more to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups Greek yogurt or strained plain yogurt
1/4 cup mint leaves, shredded
1/4 cup parsley leaves, shredded
Juice and zest of one lemon
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high flame. Add just enough olive oil to coat the pan. Add chickpeas and allow them to roast, tossing often, until they are golden brown and crispy. Remove from heat and season with smoked paprika, salt, and pepper to taste.
2. Transfer chickpeas to a bowl and add the yogurt, herbs, lemon, onion, and some more olive oil to taste. Fold together and taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, and paprika as necessary. Serve warm.
Per serving: 250 calories; 28 grams protein; 67 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 4 milligrams cholesterol; 59 milligrams sodium; 19 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servingsEndTextStartText
4 eight-ounce skin-on flaky fish fillets (preferably salmon, sea bass, snapper, or halibut)
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium-size fennel bulbs, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 pints cherry, pear, or grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup niçoise olives, pitted and rinsed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bunch dill, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon butter
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Season fish with salt and pepper to taste. Warm a large, oven-proof saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. When it starts to shimmer a bit, add the fennel bulb and red onion. Saute the vegetables, stirring frequently, until they begin to get soft and translucent, and start to brown, about 8 minutes.
2. Gently nestle the fish, skin-side up, into the cooked fennel and red onion, so that the fillets are surrounded by the vegetables. Add the white wine and tomatoes, and put the pan in the oven, uncovered. After 5 minutes, check the fish for doneness. It should be flaky and just cooked through. (You may need up to 10 minutes.)
3. Remove pan from oven, and return to the stove over a medium-high flame. Add the olives, the lemon juice, the dill, and the butter to the pan. Cook to reduce the liquid, and the sauce takes on a creamy texture, about 3 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Spoon the cooked vegetables on four plates. Place the fish filets on top of the vegetables. Pour the sauce from the pan over the fish. Serve with a loaf of rustic sourdough bread and either a crisp white or fresh red wine.
Per serving: 486 calories; 39 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 27 grams fat; 78 milligrams cholesterol; 441 milligrams sodium; 8 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 to 8 servingsEndTextStartText
11/2 cups hazelnuts
8 ladyfinger biscuits
10 ounces whipping cream
2 ounces superfine sugar
1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely grated
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and 1 lime, plus extra zest removed in thin strips using a citrus zester, to serve
Whites of 2 large free-range eggsEndTextStartText
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the hazelnuts on a baking sheet, and roast them for 10 minutes, until lightly golden.
2. Place the ladyfinger biscuits in a resealable plastic bag and, using a rolling pin, crush them into medium crumbs. Place 1¼ cups of the roasted hazelnuts (reserving the rest for garnishing) in a separate resealable plastic bag and crush them to a fine texture using a rolling pin. Combine the biscuit crumbs and nuts and mix well, then spoon a generous tablespoon into each serving jar, glass, or bowl, and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, whisk the cream, sugar, ginger, and citrus juices and zests together in a large mixing bowl until thickened (the texture should have a similar consistency to lightly whipped cream). Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, then, using a large spoon, gently fold the whisked egg whites into the cream mixture. Transfer to a large pitcher and pour into the serving jars, glasses, or bowls, then leave to set in the fridge for
3 to 4 hours.
4. Roughly crush the remaining 1/4 cup of hazelnuts and scatter on top, then sprinkle with thin strips of lemon and lime zest, and serve.
Per serving (based on 8): 307 calories; 6 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 25 grams fat; 122 milligrams cholesterol; 48 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 2 servingsEndTextStartText
For the salad:
1 bunch watercress, snipped into 2-inch pieces, washed and dried
1 stalk rhubarb, cut into small dice, steeped in a Campari simple syrup (see below)
1 bunch breakfast radish, sliced thinly
1 sprig mint, leaves shredded
1 sprig chervil, snipped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 pound ricotta salata, shaved with a peeler
1 lime, juiced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the Campari simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
¼ cup Campari
½ inch gingerEndTextStartText
1. For the Campari simple syrup: Bring all ingredients together and simmer for one minute. Pour over rhubarb while still warm and allow to cool. Place in refrigerator until ready to use.
2. For salad: In a large mixing bowl, carefully toss all ingredients except lime juice and olive oil. Toss lime juice and olive oil over and mix. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
From chef Brian Ricci at Kennett