I love March.
Why? Because I hate winter. I hate shoveling, I hate walking on ice, and I especially hate always having to look at the ground when I’m walking, instead of at all the people and things around me. With the exception of cross-country skiing and being able to do stuff indoors without feeling guilty about not being outdoors (an East Coast phenomenon, I’m told), I truly hate winter. If global warming can deliver us from winter, then I’m all for it (just kidding).
Once March arrives, winter loses its edge. The quality and the angle of the sunlight changes, and there’s a sense that something’s stirring just beneath the surface of the soil. It’s around this time that I start looking for snowdrops, the earliest of early-spring flowers. I am always amazed that something that looks so delicate and fragile braves the cold to emerge through the remaining snowbanks. Crocuses are next, colorfully declaring, “We’re here, we’re spring — get used to it!”
I got together with a close friend last week, someone I’ve known long enough that her biography can be traced through all the old, crossed-out addresses I have for her in my Rolodex. As we walked past what we fervently hoped would be the last pile of snow this winter, I reminded her of how she once told me about a visit to the Cloisters, New York City’s monument to medieval European architecture. Toward the end of a long, dark, difficult winter, my friend saw a surprising sign of life amid the medieval gloom: a crocus blooming in the courtyard garden.
She was so moved by the thought that spring was finally on its way that she knelt down beside the crocus and surprised herself by crying a few tears. This has always been such a striking vignette to me that from time to time I’ve imagined doing an illustration of it, sort of as a modern-day book of hours. I’ll probably never actually get around to it, but when I have a few minutes to daydream, the idea of designing a page dedicated to this poignant scene is very satisfying.
When I say this to my friend, she laughs and says, “I have no memory of that whatsoever!”
She remembers all sorts of things that have happened to me that I no longer recall. But when she describes them I say, “Oh, yeah, that does sound familiar!” I guess all that stuff is tucked somewhere deep inside our long-term memories, like snowdrops deep beneath the snow. They’re there, but we don’t know they’re there until we see them.
This put me in the frame of mind to make an “it’s not quite spring yet” dinner. There’s not much that’s F & L (fresh and local) in New England at this time of year, so I depend on things that can be grown indoors (mushrooms) and things that can be grown in a flowerpot on a windowsill, like parsley. I call my not-quite-spring ravioli in creamy mushroom sauce “Pasta Pre-Primavera.” (Primavera is the Italian word for spring.)
The sauce is made from butter, shallots, mushrooms, cream, mustard, brandy or vermouth, and a pinch of salt. I sometimes add green olives, capers, lemon juice, tarragon vinegar, or roasted red pepper. But when I made it last night, I got it to the stage where I taste the basic sauce before adding any “frills,” then asked my friend to taste it as well. Her verdict: “Stop! Stop! It’s perfect just as it is! Unhand those capers! Put that jar of olives down!”
I tasted it. She was right. It was perfect just the way it was. Sometimes the key to success (in many endeavors, actually) is knowing when enough is enough. It made me think of a classic piece of fashion advice from one of the famous style icons. (Was it Diana Vreeland? Brooke Astor? Babe Paley? Coco Chanel? I don’t recall … ). The advice was to dress in such a way that you feel that you have accessorized your outfit completely and successfully, and then, just as you are about to walk out the door, take one thing off. (Presumably a bracelet or something and not, say, your pants or bra.)
For dessert with an early spring dinner, I like to serve vanilla ice cream or — better still — gelato with a chocolate sauce to which I add a tablespoon of organic orange marmalade and one of organic strawberry jam. That way I get a little hit of fruit even though there’s none that’s F & L in the market. (Not that we ever have F & L oranges here in Boston!)
There’s only one slight drawback to this mushroom sauce recipe: it is very, very rich. I figured I burned off enough calories shoveling snow, though, so I ate it with a clear conscience. It was worth every shovel!
Serves 2 people who have been shoveling snow all winter, 3 people who live someplace where they don’t have to do that.
This is a creamy mushroom sauce to go over your choice of ravioli, tortellini, or any other kind of pasta. As time passes and more seasonal vegetables become available, you can add asparagus tips, zucchini, or summer squash to this dish. Cook the asparagus, zucchini, or squash separately, then add them to the dish right before serving (steaming or microwaving them works) so that the squash doesn’t make the sauce too watery, and so that the asparagus tips get properly cooked. If the asparagus you have is the pencil-thin kind, you can add the tips to the sauce as it cooks. Put them in right after the mushrooms but before the brandy.
Get everything ready before you start cooking. You’re always supposed to do this, actually — the French call it mise en place, which means “everything in place,” i.e., everything at the ready. Usually, you can get away with prepping stuff as you go, but in this recipe, it helps to prep the ingredients ahead of time. If you try to clean and slice the mushrooms while the shallots are sautéing, the shallots will be ready for you to add the mushrooms before the mushrooms are ready to be added!
Creamy Mushroom Sauce
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons shallots, finely minced
8 oz fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 tablespoons of brandy or vermouth
2 tablespoons of flat-leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
Enough pasta of your choosing to serve two or three people
1. Pour a cup of cream into a measuring cup and then add the teaspoon of mustard. Stir until the mustard is pretty much dissolved into the cream. Add the salt and stir again. Set aside. Start boiling the water for your pasta.
2. Melt the butter over low heat. Add the shallots and sauté them until they are translucent. Don’t brown them and don’t let any stragglers on the edges of the pan get crispy. If anything gets carbonized or crispy, take it out of the pan, because it could ruin the taste of the sauce.
3. Add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re soft.
4. Turn the heat off and add the brandy. (If you add the brandy while the heat’s on, it could catch fire.) Turn the heat back on and set it to medium and stir while you cook the mushrooms in the brandy for about a minute.
5. Add the cream-mustard-salt mixture to the pan. Set the heat under the pan between medium and high.
6. Add pasta to the boiling water.
7. Watch the sauce like a hawk and keep stirring. It should be bubbling but not burning. Turn down the heat if you think the sauce is getting brown along the edges of the pan. You want some of the water in the cream to evaporate, which will make the sauce richer and thicker. The sauce will reduce in volume, but don’t worry. The flavors are being concentrated, so it’s worth losing a little volume. To tell when it’s ready, dip a wooden spoon into the sauce, and run your (clean!) finger down the back of the spoon. If your finger leaves a trail, the sauce is done. Turn the heat off. Throw in the parsley so it can wilt for a moment in the sauce.
8. When your pasta is done, drain it and dump it into the saucepan if there is enough room. Toss and coat with the sauce. If there isn’t enough room in the pan just put the pasta into serving bowls and spoon the sauce over it.