by Chef Tara Davis
Let’s all heave a collective sigh of relief. The winter doldrums are becoming a thing of the past. The daffodils and forsythia are in bloom, and that can only mean one thing: Spring is here.
I’ve always considered spring to be a “do-over” season. It’s the time of year when we get serious about our resolutions and begin putting plans into action. We turn in our winter, license-to-binge-eat pass and hit the gym in preparation for summer.
But enough doom and gloom about expanding waistlines. Spring also is the beginning of a bountiful growing season ripe with tender fruits and vegetables. In an attempt at scaling back, I’ve come up with a few easy, light dishes that pay homage to the season.
First up, one of my favorite ways to eat eggs. It’s a typical Italian dish that combines fried eggs with good, rustic bread, and sweet, salty prosciutto. It also utilizes one of spring’s greatest vegetables: asparagus. When making this simple yet delicious meal, it’s best to leave the eggs runny so the yolk spills onto the asparagus and bread, making a wonderful sauce. Although it’s a peasant dish, it is such a wonderful combination of flavor, color and texture that it deserves more recognition. It also makes a nice option for brunch and even dinner. Drizzle a little truffle oil on top to send it over the edge.
After all the meat that adorns the winter table, I’m thrilled to switch to fish. I love the firm texture and mild flavor of halibut; it’s an excellent option for a bold sauce or preparation. Here, I pair it with a citrus beurre blanc, a classic French sauce that can take on a multitude of flavors. Lentils go particularly well with this dish. In fact, lentils are so versatile that I use them as a side dish for all types of meals. The combination of sauteéd halibut with the creamy yet tart acidity of the sauce is the epitome of eating luxuriously without feeling like you have to unbutton your belt.
Because I have an unabashed sweet tooth, I’ve included one of my top desserts. I first had panna cotta at a small osteria while studying in Florence. It was served in a goblet and covered in a rich, bittersweet chocolate sauce. One spoonful was all it took to hook me. It was so creamy yet so light that it almost evaporated on my tongue. I was intrigued by such a contradiction of terms. Although my time in Italy is a few years behind me, I find myself making batch after batch of it. Panna cotta — which means cooked cream in Italian — is made by simmering cream with sugar and gelatin. It’s traditionally served either with a chocolate or strawberry sauce. Because spring is peak time for strawberries, they’re a natural choice to accompany this dessert. The yogurt adds a tanginess that serves to enhance the overall flavor. Think of it as a light, eggless crème caramel.
I hope these become new standards in your home. Buon appetito!
Tara Davis is a personal chef and cooking instructor based in Chapel Hill. An active member of Slow Foods USA/Triangle and a supporter of the local farm-to-table movement, she frequently offers group cooking demonstrations through her company, The Studious Chef. To learn more, visit www.studiouschef.com.
Recipes by Chef Tara Davis
Asparagus Egg Toast with Prosciutto and Parmesan
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces
2 thick slices of bread, preferably from a peasant loaf or boule
6 slices prosciutto
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for cooking, and a small amount for brushing bread
Salt and pepper, to taste
Shaved Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, for garnish
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a large, preheated skillet. Add asparagus and season with salt. Roast asparagus, stirring occasionally over medium-high heat, for 7 to 10 minutes or until asparagus is cooked through but still al dente. Remove from pan and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet. Fry eggs to desired degree of doneness. Season with salt and pepper.
Brush bread slices with olive oil and toast lightly.
To assemble, place a slice of bread on each plate, mound with asparagus, top each with two eggs and prosciutto, and garnish with shaved cheese.
Pan-seared Halibut Over Lentils with Orange Beurre Blanc
For the halibut:
1 3/4-pound halibut fillets, cut into four equal portions
Wondra flour, as needed
2 tablespoons canola oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Rinse fish fillets under cold water and pat dry. Season both sides generously with salt and pepper. Lightly coat fillets with Wondra flour. Shake off excess.
Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add canola oil. Sauté halibut fillets for approximately 5 minutes per side. Cook until completely opaque and firm to the touch (this can take longer, depending on the thickness of the fish).
Serve over a bed of lentils and garnish with the orange beurre blanc and orange peel or zest.
For the lentils:
2 cups French green lentils
4 slices pancetta or bacon, diced
3 carrots, cut into thirds
2 stalks celery, cut into thirds
2 onions, quartered
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 quarts chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Preheat large pot over medium-high heat. Swirl olive oil to coat bottom of pan. Add pancetta and cook until crisp. Remove pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels and let drain. Remove excess oil from pot, leaving about one tablespoon. Add carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf and thyme to pot, and sauté for 10 minutes. Season with salt.
Add lentils and stir until coated. Add chicken stock or water, and bring to a boil. Place pancetta into the pot.
Simmer until lentils are cooked through but not mushy (approximately 25 minutes). Remove from heat and let lentils cool in their own liquid. When cool, drain lentils and pick out the thyme, bay leaf, carrots, celery, and onions, and discard. Adjust seasoning.
(Note: You also can leave in the carrots, onions and celery; just dice them smaller before sautéing rather than cutting them into large chunks.)
For the Orange Beurre Blanc:
1 shallot, minced
1/2-cup white wine
1/2-cup orange juice
1/2 cup, or 1 stick, unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
In a skillet on medium heat, sauté shallot in 1 tablespoon butter until translucent. Add white wine and reduce until almost fully evaporated. Add orange juice and reduce by about two-thirds.
Gradually whisk in butter one cube at a time, occasionally lifting the pan off the heat and swirling to fully incorporate the butter. Sauce will thicken and should be the consistency of a good hollandaise. Serve immediately, as the sauce can break down if left too long.
Panna Cotta con Salsa di Fragole
(yields six servings)
1 package unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups nonfat Greek yogurt, vanilla or plain
2 cups heavy or light cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2-cup sugar or granulated Splenda
For the strawberries:
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 tablespoon mint, finely chopped
1 1/2teaspoons sugar
1/4-teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons vin santo (optional)
Pinch of salt
To dissolve the gelatin, place water in a small bowl and sprinkle in gelatin. Place bowl over a small pot of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl is suspended over the water. Once dissolved, set aside.
In a mixing bowl, whisk 1 cup of cream with the yogurt and vanilla.
In a saucepan, heat remaining cup of cream with sugar over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Whisk liquefied gelatin into hot cream.Add hot cream to yogurt mixture in a slow, steady stream, whisking until blended.
Pour panna cotta mixture into six ¾-cup ramekins or parfait glasses and refrigerate. Once completely cool, cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.
For strawberries, combine all ingredients in a bowl, cover and let macerate for at least one hour.
To unmold panna cottas, place ramekins in a baking dish. Fill baking dish with warm water reaching halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Let sit for about five minutes. Run a sharp knife along the edge of each ramekin and invert onto a plate. Spoon strawberries on top and drizzle with some of the strawberry liquid.