Seasons by the Sea: Daylight Craving Time

The promise of warmer and longer days is in the air
A salad of spinach, romaine, cherry tomatoes, and homemade croutons is a great transitional dish from winter to spring. Laura Donnelly

As I scribble this, snow is flurrying (think winter), a northeaster just passed through (think fall), and the snowdrops and crocuses are up (think spring)!

Daylight saving time begins Sunday, and even Easter is coming early this year.

We may delude ourselves into thinking winter is over and the early nights of hearty stews and creamy soups are done. Of course we would be wrong, but the promise of warmer and longer days is in the air, like a premature spring fever.

What kind of foods do we like to eat this time of year? I am still roasting whole chickens and assembling rich vegetable gratins, but the thought of lightening things up is becoming more appealing.

I found a novel at an airport recently called “Topped Chef” by Lucy Burdette, described on the cover as “a Key West food critic mystery” that includes recipes. Hot dog, I thought, right up my alley! Turning to the back of the book to see just how worthwhile the recipes were, I was a little disheartened to see a recipe for a Provencal-style fish soup that called for granulated garlic and dried basil. I can fix this with fresher ingredients, I thought, and bought the silly book. 

The recipe was delicious after I “MacGyvered” it with loads of fresh basil and garlic and added some Pernod for that fennel-tarragon accent traditional in bouillabaisse. Topped with some toasted baguette slices smeared with a shortcut rouille, it was light as a feather yet warming at the same time.

“Spring fever” is a genuinely scientific phenomenon, just as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is. It is a physiological response to the increased intensity and duration of sunlight as measured by the brain.

 According to Dr. Michael Terman, director of the Light Therapy Unit at New York/Columbia University Medical Center, spring fever (which affects 50 percent of the population) can cause higher energy levels, decreased sleep, reduced eating (!), and an alleviation of depression.

Of course, some of us just want to eat lighter this time of year to rid ourselves of a bit of hibernation fat.

“Come March, it’s no longer possible to be inspired by root vegetables,” Michael Lata, a chef, told Food and Wine magazine. “You’ve done everything you can.” Actually, this is the time of year that I start to think about creative and different uses for root vegetables, like making celery remoulade out of that knobby celery root. When making pasta dishes like broccoli rabe with orecchiette, I bump up the amount of broccoli and reduce the amount of pasta. In the mood for cheesy enchiladas recently, I made them with chopped onions and chicken in lieu of the massive quantities of Monterey jack cheese, and topped it all with fresh pico de gallo and Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. Semivirtuous.

Another recipe I pulled out recently and made for a few friends is Glazed Chicken Germaine’s, from a now-defunct but once hugely popular Vietnamese restaurant in Washington, D.C. It is chunks of breast meat dusted in cornstarch and quickly fried, then served in a sweet, spicy glaze along with a shredded carrot salad, rice, and tomato slices. Yeah, I know this is not the time of year for tomatoes, but they make the dish pretty.

While moderating the Peconic Land Trust’s Long Island Grown series this past weekend, I asked the panelists, Sean Magnussen of Greenport Oyster Company, Eric Bilka of Pindar Winery, and George Hirsch of George Hirsch Lifestyle cooking show on PBS, what their favorite seasons and food and beverage pairings were. Eric said Peconic Bay scallops with a sparkling wine. Sean said his own oysters with a citrusy I.P.A. from Greenport Brewery. George held out his hands as if holding a pearl and exclaimed, “Spring! When things start to grow. I found six little chives popping out of the ground this morning and I snipped them and brought them inside.” 

We never found out what he used them for, but his spring fever was palpable, and contagious.

So now when I drive by the Milk Pail in Water Mill I think “Meh, I’m done with apples.” It’s time to look forward to the first asparagus, pea tendrils, and rhubarb. Is it too early for these spring treats? Yes, but there are plenty of good reasons to start lightening up our cooking, moving past the stew meats, potatoes with Gruyere, and risottos, and dusting off the Weber grill and keeping our eyes out for the first soft-shell crabs.

Happy early spring

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Chicken cheese enchiladasLaura Donnelly
A spring-inspired table brightens up the house during these in-between daysLaura Donnelly