Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Alex Has Spring Fever

This article appeared in the Spring 2008 (Vol. 5, Issue 2) issue of Flavours Magazine.

The tulips are in full bloom. Fresh asparagus fills the market stalls, fiddleheads are foraged down by the river, and the babbas are bringing in pails of morels. Every cooking magazine is featuring fresh spring market produce. But most of these come from our southern neighbors, and, unfortunately, on the Canadian prairies, we are still under a thick blanket of snow. The image of spring and the frosty reality rarely connect.

Spring is a difficult time for cooks in Manitoba. Everyone is craving fresh spring flavours. By mid-March we are sick of the soups and stews, the long braised meats and the hearty casseroles of the winter months; we want fresh, light and bright. We are sick of earthy potatoes and sturdy roots; we want newly sprouted light green things.

It seems that the prairie cook is left with only two options. You can break down and buy the California produce, pretending it is really spring, or you can resist the temptation of spring produce until your farmer friend a mile down the road brings you the first bag of fresh cut asparagus from his garden. This is an issue for me, as a restaurateur, because my customers want a spring menu, but they also appreciate it when I buy local. What’s a chef to do?

Reinterpret the ideas of fresh and bright.

Think of fresh not as freshly sprouted from the ground, but freshly sprouted from your mind. Reinterpret “fresh” to mean new ideas. Try cooking something you have never done before. Never cooked Thai before? Try it. Put a new spin on a family favorite. Go to the supermarket and find ingredients you have never used. Why not try your hand at molecular gastronomy. Grab some agar and make basil caviar, turn a sauce into foam, paint your plates. Deconstruct something. Challenge yourself to prepare something you have never done before.

Find your bright flavours in fruits you will never be able to source locally. I am thinking mostly of citrus flavours and tropical fruits. Nothing awakens a tired palate like a burst of citrus zest. Try combining grapefruit with ginger or fennel; lime with cumin and chilies; lemon with mint and cardamom or orange with coriander. Mangoes, papayas, and passion fruit are all great this time of year. Pair them with some zippy chilies and fresh ginger. After the months of stodgy starches the tang of a perfectly ripe mango or the crunch of a green papaya will warm you up like a Chinook blowing in from the mountains. Bright, acidic citrus will thaw the frost on your palate the way the warm April sun melts the snow on the roof. Tropical and citrus flavours provide the zip you need without spoiling the excitement of the first crop of fresh local greens.

Don’t worry. The snow will melt, the grass will grow again. Soon asparagus, green peas, chive and tarragon, baby lettuces, spinach and those crunchy radishes will return. These things are worth the wait. You will appreciate the really good stuff more if you just hang in there.

Baked Halibut with Fennel and Grapefruit

4, 6 oz halibut fillets
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp fennel seed, toasted and lightly crushed
Pinch of chiles
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 fennel bulb, stems removed and thickly sliced
1 red grapefruit, peeled and cut into segments
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tbsp chopped mint
1 tbsp lemon juice

  1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
  2. Combine paprika, salt, fennel seed, chiles and brown sugar; mix well.
  3. Brush halibut with 1 tbsp of oil and dust with spice mixture.
  4. Combine fennel with grapefruit, ginger, mint, lemon juice and remaining olive oil (if grapefruit is particularly tart, add a little white sugar or honey).
  5. Top each piece of halibut with the fennel-grapefruit mixture and bake in oven for about 10 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with a fork.
Serves 4.

Mango Chicken Skewers with Green Papaya Slaw

4 boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size cubes
1 mango, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes
1 red onion, cut into large pieces

Juice and zest of one lime
1/4 cup coconut milk
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 clove minced garlic
1 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  1. Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
  2. Add chicken to marinade, cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  3. Skewer chicken, alternating with mango and red onion.
  4. Grill or roast in 450 F oven until chicken is cooked.
  5. Serve with Green Papaya Slaw.

Green Papaya Slaw:
1 green papaya (save seeds to decorate the plate)
1 English cucumber
1 Serrano chile, cut into short, paper-thin strips
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Juice and zest of one lime
1/4 cup coconut milk
  1. Peel papaya and remove seeds.
  2. Grate papaya and cucumber on the largest blade of your box grater, or on the julienne blade of your mandolin.
  3. Combine with chiles, cilantro, lime and coconut milk.
Serves 4.