STORY BY JODI LEWCHUK
Edible Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe , No. 23, Spring 2013 (pg. 30-31)
The stalks are firm and smooth, stained a deep fleshy pink. The veined leaves are stiffly ruffled and chartreuse. In the rush of delirious joy I feel at seeing those pastel hues peeking out from over the edge of the box in which they are nested, I lapse into a momentary fantasy of separating the leaves from their blushing stems and carefully stitching them together. I’d then leap and twirl in my vegetable party skirt, celebrating the arrival of spring.
Lest my exuberance at the appearance of the season’s first rhubarb seem overzealous, remember those lean March days in the kitchen. For home cooks like me who let the cyclical availability of ingredients dictate the majority of what they prepare and eat, those final days of winter, and even those of early spring, bring with them dire culinary straits.
The long braid of locally grown garlic brought home from the market in the fall and hung on a kitchen hook with my aprons is nearing a state of stark nakedness, the last few bulbs looking lonely amongst the stumps left behind as their vine-mates have been cut away one by one over a season of short days and long nights. In an effort to avoid the dry, tasteless imported garlic sold in the grocery store, I ration these last few bulbs, uncharacteristically using the cloves in a sparing manner until the first curls of deep-green scapes dot market tables, the promise of a new garlic crop on the way.
Root vegetables, which tasted so earthy and substantial and satisfying as the first frost painted rooftops and fields, have become insipid. Come March I have eaten so many carrots, parsnips, squashes and potatoes that my taste buds can now hardly discern one from the other. They come out of long storage rubbery to the touch, and I’m desperate to put something on my plate that isn’t orange or white, stringy, and packed with starch.
The loud thock of a canning jar unsealing is nothing short of a musical sound in the dead of winter, an assurance that there is sustenance to be had even while the ground lies hardened and quiet. Yet even these treasures, the jewel-toned jams and jellies, the vinegared and spiced vegetables, the carefully concocted sauces, leave the palate wanting after their months-long run as kitchen staples. I’m done with sugar and brine; my tongue yearns for something light, fresh and alive to dance across its surface.
The arrival of the early spring crop of rhubarb at the market trumpets for me the end of this culinary drought. In those first weeks of the new season I bring home armload after armload of the rosy vegetable and let its invigorating tartness perform a spring cleaning of my eating habits. Having discarded the mildly poisonous leaves, I stew the stalks gently with ginger and pistachios, creating a soft-pink sauce flecked with green to spoon over yogurt and puddle under chiffon cake. I chop them and top them with streusel or biscuit dough, turning them into mouth-puckering crumbles and cobblers to eat adorned with a pouf of freshly whipped cream. I boil them with water and sugar to create a delicately hued simple syrup to stir into soda water or even iced tea, a perfect drink when temperatures creep just high enough to crack open the windows for the very first time.
After the rhubarb, it is just a short wait until the rush of asparagus begins. For six glorious weeks I gorge myself on green spears, eating them roasted, sautéed and steamed, served in every way I can imagine: dressed in lemon-mustard vinaigrette and crowned with shavings of Parmigiano; puréed with toasted hazelnuts and stirred through soft golden polenta; dunked into the runny yolks of wobbly poached eggs on toast; bound with stock, mint and crème fraîche to make the palest of green spring soups.
My faith is restored in these first days of a new cooking season. Mere weeks earlier my kitchen life was unfolding by rote, dictated by what ingredients were left rather than by what ingredients were available, but that all changes when new produce comes to market. I’m more apt to be spontaneous, buying things I haven’t planned on simply because they look newly picked, crisp and fresh. I’m more likely to cook without a recipe, willing to be inspired by textures and flavours that, after a year’s hiatus, are exciting and novel. I’m more inclined to set the table properly, pulling out my grandmother’s tulip-printed tablecloth and using my great-grandmother’s fragile cornflower wine glasses, a gesture that acknowledges just how special the season is.
There is no other culinary transition I await more keenly than this one, and none that is more keenly needed. Spring market days blend seamlessly into those of summer, and the fall season quickly follows, laden with bounty. But winter is long, and the last days of a harsh, demanding season can feel unbearable. To have braved months of lashing weather and sturdy food is of no consequence; what matters is my certainty that I cannot take one more day of it. And yet somehow I do. There is one more day of wearing a long wool coat and boots. One more day of eating a long-simmered stew. But then the rhubarb appears at the market and I am reminded that for persistence and patience and endurance there is reward. Perhaps that’s why the spring culinary transition feels so important and special – it is a life lesson.
After the rhubarb and asparagus, the floodgates open. Spring morel mushrooms are ready to be foraged, and radishes, spinach and fava beans are at their young, tender best. One of my favourite greens, deliciously sour sorrel, begs to be made into green borscht, while new shoots of peppery arugula make the best salads. It isn’t long before fruit also begins making the trip from field to table as strawberries and cherries become harbingers of the coming summer onslaught.
It is an extraordinary period, this passage from little to plenty. May we all take the time to savour it and be grateful that we can.
Jodi Lewchuk is an editor by profession and a writer and cook by passion. Her blog, Nostrovia! (www.nostrovia.ca), celebrates the commingling of food and life. She lives, writes and cooks in Corktown, one of Toronto’s historic east-end neighbourhoods.