give peas a chance

One of my fondest school days memories is a grade four geography project. Our teacher put us in teams and gave each team a country to research and report on. At the end of the unit, we put on a cultural fair for our parents and other classrooms. Each team hosted one of the booths set up around the perimeter of the classroom.

What country did I get assigned to? France. Trying to ignore pangs of jealousy for the kids on the African, Asian, and South American teams, we began to brainstorm. One thing on the list was which French food we would provide samples of. My vote for fries was quickly bulldozed by the safety issues of a deep fryer in an elementary classroom.

The next best thing? Pea soup. As if France wasn’t bad enough. Now nobody would come to our booth.

I was a naive child. In the end I was proud of us, decked out in berets. I was also proud of the booth we ran, with its red-and-white checkered tablecloth and café atmosphere.

But oh, the soup. I can’t remember whose mom made it, but it was silky-smooth and a bright crayon-green. Sweet, with a gulp of robust legumes. Fresher than chili but more satisfying than your average, pedestrian vegetable soup. Parents were passing up  chow mein and strudel for our soup.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t eat pea soup again until a few months ago at a friend’s house. It was one of those simple suppers — one I’d never think of making, but that delighted me with every slurp. Pea soup went back on the back burner.

And then I bought a cookbook that convinced me to try it for myself. With one success down, I decided to go for it. After all, the first day of spring passed on Friday with nary an offering from me—how could I be so ignorant? A new season, one of my favorite things, and a warmer, friendlier one at that.

To you spring, I offer this bowl of pea parmesan: surpassing my expectations with its richness, the heartiness of a passing winter and the freshness of new green.

Good thing seasons don’t eat soup, because I’m a selfish sparrow.

bracelet2*bracelet by Rachel Sudlow

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Since reading Michael Pollan’s magical chapter on foraging, I’ve been tempted to brave soggy spring forests on the hunt for mushrooms and other edible treasures. So far, this has remained a pipe dream. Good writing can do that to you; when words trump experience, armchair adventure is born.

As good as his prose is I still haven’t got my hands into the dank earth beyond my doorstep. As convincing his argument for the virtue of growing and gathering, I still haven’t turned over a single fallen tree, hoping to catch the flash of creamy mushroom-flesh it might conceal underneath. But on Saturday morning I did vacate the armchair long enough to indulge in some foraging of my own: at the Regional Market.

With bags in hand, my market mate and I set out after so many other Central New Yorkers to see what new bounty Spring had cobbled together. Flowers and herbs spilled out of the covered sheds as sunlight poured into their place. Seedlings boasted bright green sprouts, as if coveting our affection from their plastic beds. All the usual suspects were there, from the bread- to the buffalo-people.

With a pound of PDH Farms ground bison, a dozen of my favourite free-range eggs, and some locally-grown onions jostling for space in my bag, I was ready to be on my merry way.

Until this: “oh look Jen, fiddleheads!”

Adding to its unapologetic whimsy, the word was spoken with such delight and wonder I was drawn immediately to the bag of coiled greens resting at my friend’s fingertips. Though we hadn’t found them growing wildly ourselves, someone had, and we had journeyed past the supermarket to find them. We each procured a meagre ¼ pound for a simple lunch without breaking the bank.

I think I spent more time photographing these alluring young ferns than I did preparing them. It turns out that they flourish in our region, and all the way up to the Canadian Maritimes. The first fruits of the Ostrich Fern, edible fiddleheads turn up only in the Spring – and usually far from grocery store shelves. As I held a tender coil, gently removing the papery brown chaff that still clung to it, I felt as though I was holding a tiny piece of the force of life. Each baby fern breaking through the Spring soil is turned inward on itself to protect it from the still-harsh temperatures. As if accustoming to its new world, they will slowly open, revealing their fluted leaves to the elements in triumph over even the mighty omnivore. But until then, sauteed and sprinkled with some Parmesan Reggiano, they will make for a mighty fine lunch.

*my new dragonfly garden gloves also make an appearance (as background material) in this post

*see Wild Harvest for more information on fiddleheads, as well as cooking and handling tips

contra-buns for a springtime feast

Yesterday I started a tradition: making hot cross buns on Good Friday. Obviously this is not an original idea, but I don’t have many annual traditions of my own. Customs, however, are so tied to kinship that in family’s absence seem even more important. The impetus for this one came from my partner in crime who, in a fit of temptation at the grocery store last week, gathered up a plastic box of hot cross buns and looked at me with an indulgent smile. A guilty glance over the ingredients was all it took to get me food blog searching for a hot cross buns recipe to call my very own.

But first, a history lesson. These innocent buns have known their share of prejudice. Back in the day, protestant English monarchs thought that since they were baked from the dough used to make communion wafers, they were a “dangerous” hold-over of Catholic belief . I call myself Anglican, but this is one of those historical tidbits that make me scoff at religiosity. Plus, can you imagine a more unlikely association: these delicate spice bundles of studded with fruit, and … cardboard communion wafers? Thankfully, in this case popular opinion won, and despite attempts to have the buns banned, Elizabeth I passed a law that allowed bakeries to sell the popular treat at Easter and Christmas only.

The buns are believe to have pre-dated Christianity, eaten by the Saxons in honour of Eostre, the goddess of Spring (the modern term Easter is derived from this word). The cross symbolized the four quarters of the moon, or the balance of light and darkness during the Equinox.

For the recipe, I had to look no further than the comments section of this very blog. In a confluence of time that only the internet has made possible, while Susan from Wild Yeast was leaving a comment about my latest soup, I was reading through her post on hot crossed buns. Looking soft, whole-wheat hued, and just complicated enough to make me feel smug, I was almost ready to baptize this new recipe into my humble congregation of baked things.

Only a few obscure ingredient to gather up and I was ready to bake: A friend relieved my currant-less state, and I managed to find candied peel (after a look of confusion from a store clerk) on the clearance rack of my grocery store. The three hours (with good company, mind you) of mixing, rising, and waiting, crossing, baking and glazing were utterly worth it. The finished buns married tender chewiness with light spice and a sweet tang.

Today is Holy Saturday, a day lodged between the two most elevated days of Holy Week, and possible of the entire Christian year. It’s a day when the sorrow of loss covered a small group of devoted followers. It is, as the Dutch call it, a Silent Saturday. As I sit in the sunshine of my living room enjoying one of these buns toasted with a fine spread of peanut butter, I keep thinking about Easter as a turning point. It is a season where the natural world slowly begins to angle itself towards the celebration of growth and the triumph of life.

Whether you celebrate this religious holiday or simply awaken your senses to the Earth cracking open its shell, I hope you find your own ways to recognize it. For me, rolling and shaping these friendly buns reminded me of the ways all of us—regardless of creed—search for rhythm and significance. I leave you the words of singer-songwriter Dar Williams who addresses this in the following song:

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said,
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.

Rather than re-typing the recipe in its entirety, I’ll simply pass along the link. Warning: all measurements are in hard-core-baker form. (ie: weights, so you’ll need a scale) The only things I might change: trying King Arthur Flour’s white whole wheat flour for even more softness, and adding a bit of orange and lemon zest.