I was born on a cold day in April. There were tulips pushing up to bloom in banks of snow, they tell me. A terribly evocative image — or was my mother being melodramatic?
It’s easy to forget that spring can take its sweet time. As I write this from upstate New York, most of the snow has melted, and there have been a few warm, sunny days. But there are still flurries, a little hail. The sky is all dark and stormy; the air is disappointingly damp and chilly, not at all like the mythical mild spring day one imagines. And, if springtime means spring vegetables, blossoming fruit trees and crocuses, it’s clearly not yet happening in my neighborhood.
Looking closely, though, things are beginning to stir. Tiny green shoots are visible in bare patches of earth, and the first diminutive dandelions are beginning to emerge. Buds are visible on branches. At the farmers’ market, however, it’s still mostly potatoes, apples and cabbage, wintered over.
But, as it is my birthday, I’m making a special salad — a glorious, colorful, fresh-tasting salad — and I want it to look and taste like spring.
A bit of artifice is required. Thank goodness for the local farmers who have hothouses, offering an assortment of leafy greens (and for supermarkets that stock produce from California). I want a zesty mixture. Watercress, dandelion, curly endive, escarole, radicchio, mizuna, spinach and red sorrel leaves are all good candidates.
In addition to the zesty greens, there must be texture: wedges of cooked golden beets; crunchy raw slivers of celery, radish and young turnip; toasted walnuts and chopped egg. Tarragon, dill, lemon juice, mustard and walnut oil give the dressing depth and brightness.
Originally, I had planned to have this eye-popping salad as a starter, but then realized its ideal place on the menu was as an accompaniment to the main course, pan-fried breaded pork chops. Since the pork chops would be rich and fatty, a salad would be most welcome, and they’d look beautiful together as well.
A breaded pork chop makes a lovely meal, shallow-fried, crisp and golden. Of course, the details matter: Look for beautiful good-quality pork, such as Berkshire, and ask for center-cut bone-in loin chops.
For the breading, day-old firm white sandwich bread or a crustless French loaf that’s been cubed and whirled in a food processor makes nice, fluffy, soft crumbs. Dry, fine, store-bought crumbs will not achieve quite the same result.
To ensure the crunchiest result, it’s important to fry these chops very gently over medium-high heat, to allow the bread-crumb coating to brown slowly. My choice for frying, clarified butter, gives them a gorgeous flavor, but so would olive oil or good lard. A neutral oil is also fine. Since these are thick chops (not cutlets or schnitzel), they take a good five minutes per side. Just don’t crowd the pan.
For dessert, there’s no birthday cake. What I really crave is baba au rhum, a classic offering in many an old French bistro (or for that matter, in Italy, where they are called babà al rum). It is essentially a soggy, syrup-soaked, boozy delight. Though they are sometimes made in a large ring, the kind I like best are baked in muffin tins or cylindrical baba molds.
Unlike most cakes, babas are yeasted. In fact, the dough is quite similar to brioche, enriched with butter and eggs. While it is possible to make the babas the same day you serve them, it is easier to bake them a day ahead (but soak them just a few hours before serving to be certain they’re good and wet). They are blessed with a dollop of whipped cream and an extra splash of rum, and preferably eaten with a spoon.
To me, this really does feel like a spring celebration, even without the usual harbingers, like asparagus or peas. For those, I’ll just wait until next month.