If you live in a place that experiences cold, blustery winters, you know what it’s like on that first warm day when you open a door or roll down a car window just for the pleasure of gulping at the spring air—a heady mix of sweet and musty smells, so thick you almost taste it as it splashes in your face.
I always know winter has run its course on the day I pry open the heavy, glass-paned doors that lead from the living room onto my screened-in porch, dust a thick green film of pollen off the table and chairs, and claim my rightful place in the sun. That day finally arrived this week; I was giddy with the sight of daffodils bursting in the garden, dark red buds feathering on the maple in front of my house, and the magnolia tree next door teetering on the brink of its annual, fleeting glory. Never mind the days to come of playing pick-up-sticks to clean up after winter storms, then weeks of planting annuals and spreading mulch around the garden beds; on this day, my favorite al fresco dining room was ready to be opened for the season, and a celebration was in order.
As a foodie, I am inclined to mark the arrival of each new season with appropriate fare, some of it ritualized. Summer isn’t really summer until I slice into a fat Jersey tomato. The first crisp fall day inevitably produces a hankering for an apple-cheddar quiche, dusted with enough nutmeg to perfume every corner of the house. A winter snowstorm leads me to dig out the chicken chili recipe; after weeping over heaps of onions and garlic, I am rewarded with the pleasure of unwrapping a single square of unsweetened dark chocolate and watching it disappear into the unsuspecting stew.
And spring just hasn’t sprung until I have somehow celebrated the wonderfulness of fresh asparagus—even if I cheat a little with a California-grown crop, rather than waiting for the local harvest later in the season.
So on the first warm spring day of this year, as happy as I am just sipping a cup of tea and solving a crossword puzzle on my newly re-opened porch, I know what must be done. I’ve been saving a recipe I discovered over the winter for just this occasion. As quickly as I can slip into sneakers, I am off, on foot, to the local produce shop. Two words form a mantra in my head as I walk: Asparagus, arugula. Asparagus, arugula. Asparagus, arugula. Blessedly, the produce shop has both—the bright thin stalks and the dark green leaves. The woman at the register nods her approval at the canvas tote I brought along for my vegetables. Ten minutes later, I’m home, happily cluttering up the kitchen counter with everything I need for my impromptu spring feast.
The recipe I’ve been holding onto is for an asparagus-arugula frittata, topped with Gruyere cheese. Fortunately, I’ve got a hunk of Gruyere in the fridge, although I will have to substitute 2% milk for the half-and-half the recipe calls for. Not to worry, because there will be no substituting for the butter, which is already beginning to foam in an oven-proof skillet, begging to be introduced to the asparagus stalks I have carved into small pieces. Once the asparagus begins to soften, I toss in a heap of arugula I’ve rinsed and patted dry. Within moments it wilts to a fraction of its original volume. I drown the vegetables in a frothy egg-milk mixture; when the eggs start to set, I top off the custardy blend with a generous sprinkling of grated Gruyere and bread crumbs.
Garlic frites (straight from the freezer, I must confess, by way of Trader Joe’s) crisp in the oven as I place the frittata-to-be under the broiler. I pour a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc and carry it with me to the porch, where I dress the table with a colorful cloth and set out a napkin and silverware. Within minutes, I am savoring my first real taste of spring, watching the world jog and stroll and wheel by in the balmy early evening. The crisp asparagus, the bitter arugula, the pungent Gruyere and the cool wine dance across my palate; they mimic the alchemy taking place in the muddy garden outside my porch, where a reliable old row of azaleas is conspiring with the sunshine to serve up a confectionery of blooms—although I’ll have to wait a few more weeks to feast my eyes on that treat.
Tomorrow, the temperature will drop twenty degrees (hopefully without scaring the blooms off the magnolia tree) and I’ll have to remember that spring arrives slowly, not all at once. It will be another month or more until I can start taking most of my weekend meals out on the porch, in the leafy shadow of the maple tree. But for this one April evening, warmth has triumphed, asparagus has been celebrated, and winter has once again been banished from my front porch.
Eileen Cunniffe has been writing nonfiction for more than 35 years—the first 25 without the benefit of a byline, as a medical writer, corporate communications manager and executive speechwriter. Her work has appeared in journals such as Referential Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Superstition Review, Emrys Journal, The RavensPerch and Bluestem Magazine, as well as in anthologies. Read more at www.eileencunniffe.com.