Chef’s In: There’s No Place Like Spring!

Once upon a time, my dad was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

I know what you’re thinking: “No, Fanny, that was Judy Garland.” Well, you’re right about that, but if you happened to attend the Camp Winadu 1964 production of this classic American musical, you would have seen a little boy in a blue polyester dress and a spaghetti-colored wig. And that—well, that was my dad. This is the part of the story where you’re wondering how I’m possibly going to relate this to food. Just wait. It gets good. As I pondered our spring issue in search of a clever twist on seasonal dishes—I was struck with several cosmic clichés: Spring has sprung! Spring is in the air!

Well I don’t know about you, but the only thing I want in the air is the delightful smell of bacon. Although it is a dreadfully overused parallel to bridge spring and weather, I couldn’t help but reflect upon our climate’s recent oddities and where else a similar mystifying change in the elements had occurred… And then it hit me like a ton of yellow bricks. We’ve all witnessed this peculiar weather before. For those of you unfamiliar with the renowned “Wizard of Oz,” the story follows a Kansas farm girl, Dorothy, who is zipped away in a twister and dropped into the bizarre alternate universe of Oz.

Here, she encounters three inspirational figures who guide her along an exciting and unusual voyage. Well I think it’s time we journey into an epic exploration of our own. The finish line: a stunning lineup of unique spring recipes that, together, create one outstanding tapas-style meal. I will play Oz— guiding the marionette strings of our story. Each dish represents an influential character in our excursion. And you—well, you’re the little girl in the blue dress along for the ride. As a good witch once said, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.”

FIRST COURSE

There are several morals I strongly believe in. For example, never trust a box that claims to be mashed potatoes. More importantly, I am a devoted enthusiast for fresh herbs. Not only do beautiful green herbs add vibrant color to a dish, they create an earthy herbaceous flavor that is truly unparalleled. As the flip flop weather approaches, the spring greens of Wilmington’s homegrown gardens come out to play. Bright fresh herbs like mint and basil are bountiful and begging for center stage. As a tribute, I have revamped them from a cameo to the main attraction. In this first course—greasy, salty fried spring rolls are transformed into a light, refreshing appetizer of crunchy fresh herbs and citrusy roasted shrimp.

Ginger Lemongrass Shrimp Summer Rolls with Pea Shoots, Mint and Coconut Peanut Dipping Sauce

Ingredients

ROASTED SHRIMP:
½ lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 stalk lemongrass 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
1 tsp. lime juice 1 tsp. soy sauce
 
RICE PAPER WRAPS:
12 rice paper wrappers + warm water for soaking
1 cup pea shoots (substitute: bean sprouts)
1 large bunch Thai basil
1 large bunch fresh mint 1 medium cucumber, cut into matchsticks
2 loose carrots, peeled into ribbons
Salt and pepper
 
 
COCONUT PEANUT DIPPING SAUCE:
1 small garlic clove, grated
1 tsp. ginger, grated
¼ cup peanut butter
¼ cup (canned) coconut milk
2 Tbsp. fresh orange juice
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. honey
Pinch of salt
 

Directions: Grate the inside of the lemongrass (white and light green parts) with a microplane. Remove tails from shrimp and place them in a bowl with the lemongrass. Add toasted sesame oil, ginger, lime, soy sauce, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss to combine ingredients and marinate for a maximum of 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make the dipping sauce. Whisk all ingredients together until creamy and season to taste with salt. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Preheat oven to 400º. Place shrimp on a baking sheet and roast for 6-7 minutes. Cut through one to make sure it’s opaque in the center. Let cool and cut each shrimp into thirds. Set out an assembly line of ingredients starting with a flat platter of warm water and a damp, outspread dishcloth for the wrappers. Next, lay out the rice paper wrappers, shrimp, pea shoots, herbs, cucumbers, and carrots. Submerge a wrapper in the water for about 5 seconds until it feels pliable. Carefully transfer to the damp towel. Equally layer all ingredients across the lower third of the spring roll skin. Fold sides over filling (like a burrito) and continue to roll away from you until the edges are sealed. Transfer wrapped summer roll to a platter and repeat until all rolls are completed. Serve immediately with coconut peanut dipping sauce.

SpringRoll1

SECOND COURSE

In Wilmington, the arrival of spring indicates the re-opening of our riverfront farmers’ market. One thing I never leave this local produce haven without: gorgeous multicolored rainbow chard. This spring varietal is packed with nutrients and provides antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits. Most importantly, it’s flippin’ delicious. To complement our tapas theme and enhance the beauty of the dish, petite seared portions of tuna sit atop this vibrant, garlicky sautéed chard. Garnished with toasted macadamia nuts and a sweet-and-spicy butter sauce, this course might convince you that we took a wrong turn and landed in Hawaii.

Seared Tuna with Spicy Guava Butter and Crushed Macadamias over Wilted Rainbow Chard

Ingredients

TUNA:
4 (2 oz.) pieces of thick, high quality tuna steaks
1 tsp. vegetable or canola oil
Salt and pepper
4 tsp. macadamia nuts, dry toasted over low heat in a pan and crushed
 
WILTED RAINBOW CHARD
1 large bunch of rainbow chard
1 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
1 medium clove garlic
Salt and pepper
 
GUAVA BUTTER:
1 cup guava juice
2 Tbsp. apricot jam
1 Tbsp. honey
2 small serrano peppers, sliced and seeded
Pinch of salt 2 Tbsp. butter

Directions: For the guava butter: Mix all ingredients (except butter) in a small pot and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take off heat, remove serrano peppers and whisk in butter. Season with more salt if necessary. For the rainbow chard: Separate stems from leaves. Dice stems and set aside. Stack the leaves, roll tightly, and then slice them perpendicularly creating ribbons. Heat butter and oil over medium heat. Remove the outside skin from the garlic clove and smash with the flat side of your knife. Drop clove into the pan. Add the chard stems, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until tender—about 3 minutes. Remove the garlic clove and add the chard leaves. Season again with salt and pepper and sauté until the leaves are wilted, about 3 more minutes. Sear the tuna: Pat each tuna steak with a paper towel and then season with salt and pepper on each side. Heat oil over high heat. Sear tuna approximately 2 minutes per side for rare. Pour guava butter on 4 plates and top with even portions of the wilted chard. Top chard with tuna and garnish with crushed macadamia nuts and more guava butter.

Tuna1

THIRD COURSE

To end our epic quest, I am going to share with you how astonishingly easy it is to make homemade pesto with just a few pulses of a food processor. There are two reasons I adore this velvety emerald-colored sauce. One, it’s fabulous on everything from frittatas to pastas to tennis shoes. Seriously, it’s that good. Two, it can be made with any variety of ingredients. Allergic to nuts? Swap out the traditional pine nuts for sesame or pumpkin seeds. Not a fan of basil? Substitute spinach or another unexpected green vegetable… For the finale of our Wizard of Oz-esque tale, it’s time to reveal the flying monkeys. In other words: I will now tap my Toms shoes together as I turn elegant, oversized spring onions into the star of our dish. These colossal sweet scallions are grilled and then pulsed with roasted garlic, herbs, and lemon to reveal a light, flavorful pesto. As it is dolloped over our perfectly seared mini filets of lamb, our meal— and adventure—has come to a close.

Pan Seared Lamb with Grilled Spring Onion Pesto

Ingredients
4 (2 oz.) boneless lamb leg filets
2 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. ground toasted cumin
Salt and pepper
1 head garlic
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large bunch spring onions, rinsed with bulbs sliced off
1 Tbsp. olive oil Salt and pepper
¼ cup sunflower seeds in a pan (about 5 minutes)
2 medium cloves roasted garlic
1 small clove raw garlic
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
Grilled spring onions (recipe follows)
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. honey
1/2 – 1/3 cup olive oil Salt and pepper

Directions: Pat lamb dry with a paper towel and season both sides with 1 teaspoon cumin and a pinch of salt and pepper, using 1 teaspoon of oil to rub the seasonings in. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil in a sauté pan over medium high. For medium rare, sear both sides for 2-3 minutes. Turn heat to low. Keeping the pan on the heat, cover the lamb with a lid and let it cook for an additional 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375º. Slice off the very top of the garlic head. Drizzle with oil and wrap in foil. Place on a sheet tray and bake until knife-tender and fragrant, approximately 35 minutes. Let cool and then squeeze out two medium size cloves for this recipe. Preheat a grill or grill pan to medium high. Drizzle spring onions with oil, salt, and pepper and grill until stalks are golden and caramelized—about ten minutes (turning halfway through).

To make pesto: In a food processor, combine roasted garlic, raw garlic, toasted sunflower seeds, and 1 teaspoon salt. Pulse until the seeds are broken down. Add basil, rosemary, grilled spring onions, lemon juice, parmesan, honey, and salt and pepper. Pulse until the mixture is combined and then stream in olive oil. Pesto should be slightly chunky but still have a smooth, wet consistency. Season to taste with salt, pepper, lemon, and honey. Top each piece of warm lamb with 1 tablespoon pesto.

Pesto

So maybe last year, as you wandered the local gardens or colorful lanes of the produce markets, nothing sparked your attention. Well this year, when you spot the familiar faces of fragrant fresh herbs, radiant chard, perky green-leafed onions, you’ll recognize them from our journey. “And you were there, and you were there…” What can I say? There’s no place like spring

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