You’d have to be hiding in the attic not to have noticed that Savannah is in the full, bright-green grip of its annual celebration of the Feast of St. Patrick.
It’s the time of year when entertaining, for most locals, involves unnaturally green food, Irish-whiskey-laced coffee, mounds of corned beef, and an overzealous use of shamrock-shaped cookie-cutters for making sandwiches, cookies and other treats.
But the Feast of St. Patrick is just one of many things about the month of March that’s worth celebrating. There are many others, not the least of them the return of spring.
Or at least, its official return.
A Savannah spring is a rogue and has never paid any attention to the calendar. It often slips in (as it did this year) in late January, teasing us with balmy temperatures and blooming azaleas. But just when we’re lured into thinking the warm weather is here to stay, like a slighted debutante, spring abruptly turns its back and leaves us in the cold.
But that very changeable nature is part of what makes the season worth celebrating at the table. Even if the weather keeps us from moving that table outside, the bright, new flavors still make the celebration feel fresh and festive.
The one thing to keep in mind when planning the menu is that no matter what the turn in the weather outside, the kitchen is likely to be warm. And there’s nothing celebratory or fun about sweating over a meal at the last minute. Look for things that can be made ahead or mostly ahead with a minimum of last-minute fuss.
The menu that follows should help get you in the mindset. Most of it can be made ahead, and the few things that require last-minute attention won’t take you away from the table for more than a couple of minutes — and, more to the point, aren’t likely to work up a sweat.
Which means the cook can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the company.
Spring Prawns, Roman Style
Our sweet brown shrimp won’t be in season for another month or so, but the large deep-water shrimp are available now and are perfect for this classic Roman recipe. It can be made ahead and served at room temperature or, if you want to make it ahead to serve warm, make it through step 1, then finish just before serving. Serves 4-6 as an appetizer.
• 1 pound medium to large shrimp
• ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
• ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
• 2 teaspoons anchovy paste
• ½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
• 2 lemons, 1 halved and 1 cut into wedges
• 1 small baguette, thickly sliced, for serving
1. Peel shrimp, leaving tail flippers on. Pat dry.
2. Heat oil, garlic, and hot pepper in large, heavy-bottomed skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat. Sauté until fragrant, about 5-10 seconds after it begins to sizzle. Add anchovy paste and stir until dissolved.
3. Add shrimp and toss until just pink, but not quite done, about 1 minute. Remove shrimp from pan and spread on plate. If making ahead to serve warm, can be made through this step up to 1 hour ahead: remove pan from heat; cool and cover shrimp.
4. When ready to finish, return pan to medium-high heat. Add wine and bring to boil, stirring and scraping pan to loosen cooking residue. Boil until reduced by two-thirds and syrupy.
5. Return shrimp to pan and season with salt if needed. Add herbs and, tossing, cook until shrimp are completely done, about 30 to 60 seconds. Squeeze in juice from ½ lemon, taste, and adjust lemon and salt. Serve warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges and baguette.
Pork Scaloppine with Asparagus and Fontina
Marcella Hazan’s classic Veal Scaloppine with Asparagus and Fontina is perfect for a spring celebration, since it can be made ahead through step 5. There are a lot of steps here, but it’s really quite simple and easy to put together.
Unhappily, good veal is difficult to come by locally and wildly expensive when it can be had. Fortunately, this adapts beautifully to scaloppine made with pork tenderloin. Adapted from Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” Serves 4.
• ½ pound fresh asparagus
• 1 large pork tenderloin (about 1¼ pounds)
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• 3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
• About ¼ cup all-purpose flour spread on a plate
• 6 ounces fontina cheese, sliced as thinly as possible
• 1/3 cup dry Marsala
1. Prepare basin of cold water. Trim cut end of asparagus, peel tough part of stem with vegetable peeler, and drop into cold water. Bring at least 1 inch water to boil in large, lidded skillet over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and carefully add asparagus, cover, and bring back to boil. Uncover and cook until crisp-tender, about 1-2 minutes. Drain and spread to cool.
2. Trim pork and remove silverskin. Cut off tapering tips and set aside for another use. Cut center into 4 equal medallions like filet steaks, about 1¼-inch thick. Put medallions between sheets of plastic wrap on sturdy work surface and gently beat out with scaloppine pounder or meat mallet until thin as scaloppine. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons butter and oil in large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, roll enough scaloppine to fill pan without crowding in flour, shake off excess, and slip into pan. Lightly brown on both sides, about a minute per side. If necessary, repeat until all pork is browned. Turn off heat and set pan aside.
4. Choose large baking dish or roasting pan that will hold scaloppine in one layer without overlapping. Line with cooking parchment or foil and put in scaloppine. Cut asparagus on diagonal to same length as scaloppine and arrange on top of scaloppine. Very lightly season with salt. Cover with sliced fontina.
5. Pour off excess fat from pan in which scaloppine cooked and return to medium high heat. Add any juices from pork and Marsala and bring to boil, stirring and scraping to loosen cooking residue. Cook until reduced to 3 tablespoons and spoon over cheese. Dot with 1-2 tablespoons butter cut into bits. Cover with sheet of parchment or foil that is larger than dish. Crimp edges together with lower parchment or foil to seal. Can be made 2-3 hours ahead to this point.
6. About 30-45 minutes before serving, position rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 400 F. Bake in upper third of oven 15 minutes. Remove dish from oven, carefully remove parchment or foil cover away from you to prevent scalding from steam, and serve directly from dish or transfer to platter and spoon pan juices over.
Smashed New Potatoes with Spring Scallions and Herbs
• 2 pounds red-skinned potatoes
• 3-5 tablespoons unsalted butter
• About ½-¾ cup whole milk, warmed
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 4-6 small scallions, washed, trimmed and thinly sliced
• 1 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
• 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1. Prepare heavy-bottomed pot with at least 1 inch cold water and steamer insert (water should still be below insert). Cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Meanwhile, scrub potatoes under cold running water. Do not peel, but cut into chunks. Add to pot, cover, and steam 2 minutes. Adjust heat to medium and steam until potatoes are very tender, about 15-20 minutes.
2. Remove from pot. Remove steamer insert, drain pot, and wipe dry. Return potatoes to pot and put over low heat. Roughly mash with potato masher, add butter and mash until butter is incorporated and potatoes are mostly smooth. Add milk as needed until potatoes are fluffy and smooth but still a little lumpy. Season well with salt and pepper and mix in scallions. Transfer to warm serving bowl, sprinkle with herbs, and serve warm.
Lavender Panna Cotta
Lavender adds a bright, floral touch to this traditional Italian dessert, which is most often flavored with a vanilla bean. Look for dried culinary lavender flowers. Those processed for sachets may have been treated in a way that makes them inedible.
This is even better with blackberries or blueberries, but since they’re not yet in season, I’ve used strawberries instead. When the season for those other berries come around, do try this with those in place of the strawberries. Serves 6.
• 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
• 1 ½ cups whole milk
• 1 ½ cups heavy cream
• 2 tablespoons culinary lavender flowers, tied in a bundle with cheese cloth
• ½ cup sugar
• 1 recipe Strawberries in Grand Marnier
1. Sprinkle gelatin over ½ cup cold milk and let soften at least 10 minutes. Heat remaining milk, cream, and lavender bundle in heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Let simmer 4-5 minutes and stir in softened gelatin and sugar. Bring back to simmer, stirring constantly, and simmer 3-4 minutes, or until gelatin is completely dissolved, stirring often. Turn off heat.
2. Prepare an ice bath of crushed ice and water. Remove lavender bundle, gently squeezing to get out liquid and discard. Transfer cream to bowl and set in ice bath. Stir until cold and beginning to thicken. Lightly rub 6 custard cups or ramekins with mayonnaise to grease. Ladle in cream, cover, and chill until set, at least 4 hours. Can be made a day ahead.
3. Before serving, dip cups briefly in hot water, loosen edge with sharp knife, and invert over serving plates. Shake to unmold. Spoon berries over and serve immediately.
Strawberries in Grand Marnier
• 1 pint small, fresh strawberries
• 2-4 tablespoons sugar
• 1 teaspoon freshly-grated orange zest
• 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1. Wash, stem, and core berries. Cut in half or if large, slice. Put in glass or ceramic bowl and sprinkle with sugar, to taste. Toss until sugar is beginning to dissolve and add zest and liqueur. Stir and let stand 15 minutes, or until sugar is dissolved.
2. Taste and adjust sugar, stir well, and let stand until sugar is dissolved, about 10-15 minutes longer. Serve with 1 hour.