Bitter-Sweet, Salty & Sour
The Flavors of Spring
Apple blossom time
Spring in Maine is a long, halting, stuttering, backwards-and-forwards process that sometimes seems to begin in January and doesn’t reach its peak until late in May. Even in May there have been years when frost and snow were featured performers. But I’m happy to say, with growing confidence, that spring has indeed arrived. And finally we’re experiencing the overwhelming fragrances and flavors of spring on the shores of the North Atlantic: Bitter and sweet, salty and sour, all combine to celebrate this happy season.
Sweet and salty come together in the perfume of apple blossoms and lilacs mingling with a salt tang from the onshore breeze that drifts through the windows, just opened since the screens were put in last week. Over a glass of rosé on the kitchen porch at evening, I catch the cinnamon fragrance of viburnum, the variety called appropriately Korean spice. And yesterday I ambled down the coast to Warren and then to Damariscotta Mills to watch as floods of alewives swarmed up the St. George and Damariscotta rivers, heading for their spawning grounds. Small, bony alewives, members of the herring family, are prized bait for lobster pots. They’re not much to eat but old-timers like them
Alewife harvest, Damariscotta Mills
smoked, though new-timers are less enthusiastic. But the fragrance—the briny, fishy, salty odors that exude from the nets poised to catch the fish—that’s what explains the flocks of crying gulls, the ospreys soaring overhead, the fishermen gathered on the banks, all there to profit from nature’s spring bounty.
Sweet and salt are there too in suddenly abundant vegetables, first and foremost, of course, spring’s harbinger, asparagus with its clean, green flavor, its bright appeal. Available in supermarkets right the year round, flown in from Mexico or Peru or even farther afield, industrially farmed asparagus is no match for the home-grown, locally harvested spears I find at the farmer’s market or in a generous neighbor’s garden. These are as good raw in a spring salad as they are lightly steamed and served on crisply toasted bread with melted butter or olive oil, a spritz of lemon juice, and a dash of Maine sea salt and seaweed combined (from www.seaveg.com ). Asparagus like that, all by itself, makes a perfect spring supper; the same simple treatment does well for spring-foraged ramps or fiddleheads, still mossy and damp from the stream beds they call home.
Fiddleheads: Maine foragers’ spring prize
With all that salty sweetness, bitter is also a welcome tonic. I’m thinking of dandelion greens, of course, which my mother diligently harvested every year once the ground had thawed in April and before the plants produced their brilliant blossoms in May. She had a special little paring knife she kept for the task of wiggling under the corona of leaves and cutting them off just below the root line. After they flower, she said, dandelions become too bitter. But bitterness was the point, the prize, and, my mother also said, it was a spring tonic to clean out sluggish winter blood. And, you know, she was right. Dandelions are a great source of vitamins (A and C), calcium, magnesium, potassium, and above all iron, the kind of stuff we need if we’re going to get out in the springtime and do what needs to be done.
Dandelion greens, just harvested
In France, tender young dandelions make a lovely salad, tangled with lardons of bacon and the fat in which the bacon fried, plus a dash of good wine vinegar and a handful of crisp croutons. My mother would have been appalled at the very idea of raw dandelion greens. Like most Maine cooks, she steamed them until well and truly done, but always with bacon or salt pork or a ham bone, which seems to be quite universal, as well as that dash of vinegar at the end.
Tart, sour, tangy
And then there’s sourness, a fundamental spring flavor. When the ground thaws, I’m convinced the fragrance you first smell is that of fermenting things, everything that got lost and frozen in the winter and is now evolving into a new state of being, whether it’s apples that dropped in late fall and stayed on the ground or the stuff, to be polite, that the dog left in the yard, it all comes together in the murky, muddy, fermenting, bubbling aromas of spring.
But there’s a more user-friendly way to experience those tart, tangy, sour flavors of spring. Rhubarb, of course, is first and foremost but I’m almost as in love with
Sorrel in the spring garden
rhubarb’s cousin, leafy green sorrel, as I am with the ruby stalks of ripe rhubarb. Sorrel goes into sauces and soups, rhubarb into sauces and pies. Sorrel’s only problem may be the fact that, cooked, it turns a rather unappetizing shade of brown, but if you add a handful of spinach leaves to it, some of the greenness will remain. I’ve also been told that adding, of all things, a Vitamin C pill (100 grams, please) will help retain the color. I could give you a recipe for sorrel soup, a comforting bowl for a spring evening, but it’s so easy you shouldn’t need a recipe. You will need a potato for bulk and an onion and maybe a carrot for flavor, but not much more beyond salt, pepper and some good thick country cream, preferably from a Jersey cow. A pound of sorrel leaves should be plenty and you begin, as you do with any soup, by sweating a chopped onion in some butter or extra-virgin oil, the choice is yours. Then add a large potato, peeled and cut into smaller pieces, a carrot ditto if you wish, and maybe some fresh chopped parsley. When the potato and carrot are soft, stir in the sorrel leaves, rinsed of dust, and add a handful of spinach and that Vitamin C tab if you want. Top it up with chicken stock—or plain water or vegetable stock if you’re a vegetarian. When all the greens are soft, puree the whole thing with whatever you use for the task. Taste it and adjust the seasoning, then stir in some cream, bring it to a simmer, and serve it up, maybe with a few croutons scattered over the top. Or a handful of chopped chives from the garden. Or a sliced hard-boiled egg. Or all three.
As for the rhubarb, I’m not going to tell you how to make rhubarb pie because there are dozens of recipes all over the internet. Nor am I going to tell you how to make rhubarb sauce because it’s too easy—cook sliced rhubarb with sugar, adding a cinnamon stick if you like cinnamon. If you cook it long enough, the rhubarb practically dissolves into a sauce. This is utterly delicious topping a piece of breakfast toast, well buttered, as good as or better than anything called jam.
But here’s something interesting about both sorrel and rhubarb—in Britain they are both considered appropriate to serve as an accompaniment to certain kinds of fish, especially those valuable fatty, oily, Omega3-rich fish like mackerel, yellowfin and albacore tuna, salmon, and sardines. The combination is a taste balance that, like tomatoes and basil or chicken and tarragon, is so perfect you wonder why it took so long to figure it out. In the UK, tart spring gooseberries are often the basis for the sauce, but in the US, gooseberries are almost impossible to find. So here’s a nice mix of rhubarb and onions, flavored with maple syrup, that is lovely served next to a grilled fillet of mackerel:
Roasted Red Onions with Rhubarb
This was inspired by Melissa Clark who recommended something similar to go with chicken. I think it’s much, much better with mackerel, salmon, swordfish, or, if you can find them, sardines grilled over charcoal.
10 to 12 ounces red onions, peeled and quartered (or halved if small)
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Thyme or rosemary, fine chopped, about half a teaspoon
10 to 12 ounces rhubarb, sliced (2 cups)
3 tablespoons maple syrup, plus salt and pepper
More chopped herbs for garnish
Turn the oven on to 425º.
Small red onions are really nice in this dish but if you can only get larger ones, cut them in half or in quarters. Toss them in a bowl with the oil, some salt and pepper, and a good pinch of finely chopped fresh thyme or rosemary. Turn them into an oven dish and set, uncovered, in the hot oven for about 10 minutes or until the onions start to soften.
Meanwhile, add the sliced rhubarb to the same bowl in which you dressed the onions (NB: saving on dish washing) and add the maple syrup and another pinch of salt and black pepper. After the onions have started to soften, turn the bowl of rhubarb with all the syrupy juices, into the onions, stir it up gently and return to the oven for another 30 to 45 minutes, so that the rhubarb pieces soften but don’t dissolve.
Remove from the oven and scatter more chopped thyme or rosemary over the top—not too much, just enough to give a bit of flavor.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
PS: I think this would also be delicious with some fat, juicy pork chops or a pork rib roast.