“snowdrops” and spring cooking
One of my goals for 2016 is to memorize a poem every month.
I started in January with Louise Gluck’s Snowdrops. The poem leapt off the page. The imagery of a delicate white flower being almost surprised at its own resilience. The fragile stem pushing through cold, damp earth to be “among us again” and bracing against “the raw wind of the new world.”
Then February came with Neruda and March, Ms. Angelou. But a few days ago, while walking in my friends newly planted garden, “snowdrops” sprang to the front of my brain. Tiny little carrot sprouts practically wide-eyed. Radishes climbing toward the sun while the wind whips them down. Baby onions stretching up with seed caps clinging to the sprout like sleepers in a child’s eye.
The flavors of spring are delicate and feel like the tender skin of a baby’s foot, not yet calloused against the years of use. The first sprouts and greens are whispers compared to the bawdiness of tomatoes and hot peppers. They offer no comfort from the cold the way that thick-walled squash or storage potatoes do.
This time of year, I turn to poaching to be gentle with these newbies. This technique gently cooks ingredients in simmering liquid, which does not immediately sound delicious. But if you make that liquid delightful (with the addition of aromatics or wine or beer or stock) the flavors mingle and become something more than a pot of boiled carrots.
Using as little liquid possible is one of the keys to successful poaching. Enough to just cover the ingredients but not so much as to wick the flavor from the food into the broth. Think about making stock, if you taste chicken meat after it has been boiled for 8 hours it tastes of nothing at all. The flavor has dispersed from the meat into the liquid—homeostasis at its finest. With poaching you are trying to do the opposite, pull the nuances of the liquid into the main ingredient.
The other key point is to be gentle. I generally (excluding eggs) bring all the ingredients from cold water to simmer together. This allows the maximum amount of time for the aromatics to perfume the main ingredient. If you just plop a chicken breast into already simmering water it will be cooked in a few minutes. If you slowly cajole the chicken to cook in ever warming water, it gets about 20 minutes to absorb the flavors.
And the delicateness carries over to how hard the ingredient is cooked. Specifically for meat if you inflict a lot of stress on the muscle protein it seizes quickly (think of searing fish, it literally recoils from the heat) but by slowly and softly bringing the protein to temperature it maintains its tenderness feeling silky in the mouth.
And finally, know that in the act of poaching ingredients are interchangeable. Substitute chicken for fish for an egg. Swap asparagus with green beans with carrots. The premise is the same. Use a bit of flavorful liquid, heat it gently, and speak quietly because we might all be a bit surprised that we survived. “Crying, yes, risk joy. Afraid, yes, but among you again in the cold light of earliest Spring.”
By reusing the poaching liquid in this dish you simultaneously build complexity of flavor and minimize the only hassle associated with poaching—making and disposing of the liquid. Don’t skimp on the almonds or radishes because they provide an essential crunch.
Slicing the chicken breast when cold, the cuts will be cleaner and juicier than if sliced while warm.
- 4 chicken breasts
- 1 bu asparagus
- 1 bu radish
- 1 bag salad greens or spinach or arugula
- ¼ C slivered almonds
- 1 lemon
- ½ C white wine
- 1 onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp salt
- any other aromatics you have carrots, leeks, herbs, and on
- ¼ C yogurt
- ¼ C olive oil
- Season the chicken breasts liberally with salt
- Trim and wash the asparagus
- Shave the radishes thinly
- Toast the almonds
- Wash and dry the greens
- Cut the lemon, onion, garlic, salt, and any other aromatics into rough chunks
- Combine all that with the white wine in a medium pot
- Lay the chicken over the aromatics and add water until just covered
- Bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat and cook until the chicken breasts are plump and firm
- Remove from the liquid and allow to cool
- Add the asparagus to the cooking liquid and cook until bright green but still crisp
- Remove from the liquid and transfer to the fridge to cool
- Whisk the yogurt and olive oil together with a pinch of salt
- When the chicken is cool, slice in to medallions
- Cut the asparagus into ½” pieces
- On a serving platter scatter the greens
- Then fan the chicken over the greens and toss the asparagus, radishes and toasted almonds over the chicken
- Drizzle with the yogurt dressing and serve
- 2 bu spring carrots, topped and scrubbed
- 1 onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 5 sprigs thyme
- 1 lemon or orange
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp chili flakes
- 1 tub fromage blanc or ricotta
- 4 sprigs mint
- drizzle of honey
- drizzle of olive oil
- Take the clean carrots and cut into a pleasing shape. If they are baby carrots, leave whole or simply cut in half lengthwise. If they are larger, cut into ½” sticks.
- Roughly cut the onion, garlic, and citrus.
- Combine with the thyme, chili flakes, salt, (and carrot tops if you have them) and lay in the bottom of a heavy pan.
- Top with the carrots and then just cover with water or chicken stock.
- Bring to a simmer and cook until tender
- Allow to cool and transfer to a serving platter
- Dot with the fromage blanc, sprinkle with torn mint, and drizzle with the honey and olive oil
- Sprinkle with salt and black pepper as desired