With winter now winding down, and daylight hours increasing, it's that time of year my mother used to call the "in-between season." It's a time when no one knows what to serve for dinner. Though the thermometer remains stubbornly low, the hearty dinner fare, which everyone craved just two weeks ago, is no longer appealing. Suddenly, brisket and beef stew seem too heavy.
Yet because there's plenty of chilly weather coming in April, I find it's far too early to segue into gazpacho and cold chicken. This leaves me in a quandary about what to prepare when the warmer side of spring is just beyond my reach.
I often break out the panini-maker, or serve soup and salad for dinner. But I can't do that too many nights in a row before my husband complains that he wants a real meal — meaning something equivalent to a restaurant entree.
For that reason, several years ago I started experimenting. I went through a stage of turkey burgers and Sloppy Joes. But they weren't elegant enough to suit my self-esteem, especially if company was expected for dinner.
So I began perusing restaurant menus to see what chefs offer at this time of year. At upscale eateries, I found lamb in many forms. Although it was in season, lamb is still too rich when a whiff of spring is in the air.
Neighborhood restaurants offered sandwiches on focaccia or pasta primavera. But the idea of broccoli and carrots in a thin broth seemed a bit tired; I wondered if most men would go for such a spare dish. If they're like my husband, the answer is no.
If I owned a restaurant, what would I offer during this period of several weeks I've begun to define as the fifth season?
I realized pasta primavera, which means spring pasta in Italian, could be beefed up with a cornucopia of seasonal veggies, creating a chunky sauce. For people leery of vegetarian entrees, a large dollop of ricotta cheese would make the dish more filling.
During a trip to the supermarket, I noticed a display of turkey breasts. By March, turkey has long since shed its cranberry-and-sweet-potato identity and is ready for reinvention. I decided to roast a turkey breast with oregano and lemon juice. This seasoning transformed it into a whole new bird.
My mind then wandered to fishermen's stew, which I felt would offer a bridge between winter and spring. On a raw day in March or April, fish poached in a tasty broth would be warming, yet lighter than beef stew.
And one night, when I was in a hurry, I turned to a package of tortellini hiding in my freezer. I prepared it in a pot of simmering vegetable broth, along with carrots and white beans. It was so delicious that my husband didn't even clamor for meat.
While I'm still on the prowl for fifth-season foods, I now rely on these dishes to carry me through until May, when the temperature finally lifts, calling for even lighter fare.
3 Tbsps. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
2 medium-sized zucchini, coarsely diced
8 Italian plum tomatoes, coarsely diced
3/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
kosher salt to taste
4 red snapper fillets, skinned
2 cans (8 oz. each) tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 Tbsps. fresh parsley, chopped (optional)
Remove the dark-green ends of leeks. Peel off their outer tough layers and discard.
Cut leeks in half vertically. Rinse away dirt under water and pat dry with paper towels. Cut horizontally into 1/4 -inch slices.
In a large pot, heat the oil on a medium-low flame. Sauté the leeks and garlic for 1 minute.
Add the red pepper, zucchini, tomatoes, crushed red pepper and salt. Stir ingredients occasionally until vegetables wilt.
Meanwhile, rinse the fillets under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
To the pot, add the tomato sauce and wine, stirring to combine. Place fillets in pot, submerging in the sauce. Cover pot and gently simmer for 15 minutes, or until fillets turn opaque and are cooked through.
With a spatula, gently move the fillets to a rimmed platter and cover with sauce.
Sprinkle with parsley, if using. Serve with white rice. (During Passover, serve with boiled round potatoes.)
Lemon-Roasted Turkey Breast
nonstick cooking spray
1 turkey breast, weighed to approximate cooking time
kosher salt to taste
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. paprika
Equipment: meat thermometer
Preheat oven to 375°.
Generously coat a small roasting pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Slice 1 lemon into 1/8-inch circles, as evenly as possible. Discard pits. Arrange circles on the bottom of the roasting pan.
Rinse the turkey breast under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.
On bottom of the breast (the bony side), squeeze juice from half of the second lemon, discarding pits. On this surface, evenly sprinkle salt, and 1/8 teaspoon each garlic powder, oregano and paprika.
Place the turkey breast skin-side up on lemon circles. Onto skin, squeeze the juice from the remaining half of the second lemon.
Evenly sprinkle salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the three spices onto skin.
Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, avoiding bones. Set the thermometer according to its instructions.
Place the turkey breast in the oven skin-side up. After 30 minutes, turn turkey over and baste with half of the third lemon.
Roast for 30 more minutes.
(If meat thermometer is too bulky, remove and replace it, when you turn breast again.)
Return turkey to skin-side up and baste with remaining half lemon. Continue roasting until thermometer reaches 180° and turkey juices run clear when a knife is inserted into the thickest part of the breast, about 28 minutes a pound.
Wait 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Discard the lemon slices.
1 can (19-oz.) cannellini beans
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 bunch of carrots, diced
kosher salt to taste
1/4 tsp. dried basil
2 Tbsps. fresh parsley, chopped
1 can (48 oz.) vegetable broth
1/2 head of escarole, sliced horizontally into ribbons
8 oz. cheese tortellini
freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste
Place the beans in a colander. Rinse under cold water and drain completely.
Heat the oil in a large pot on a medium flame.
Season the onion and carrots with salt and sauté, until onions turn transparent (not black), about 2 minutes.
Add the beans, basil and parsley. Pour in broth and gently stir. Check salt and add more, if needed. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the tortellini and simmer for 5 more minutes.
Serve in soup bowls.
Grate Parmesan cheese on top of soup.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Linda Morel is a Manhattan writer specializing in food. E-mail her at: [email protected].