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VOL. 126 | NO. 65 | Monday, April 4, 2011

Spring Fever, Flavors Hit Memphis Kitchens

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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March came in like a lion and it didn’t exactly go out like a lamb, but the contradictory month still spells the beginning of spring, when young men’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, and chefs in restaurant kitchens begin considering changes to their menus that reflect a more buoyant season. In fact, chefs get pretty darned excited about this momentous change of seasons.

(Illustration: Emily Morrow)

“Asparagus,” said Cullen Kent, owner and chef of Midtown perennial Café Society, in tones that could be called worshipful. “I’m definitely looking forward to asparagus. I want to back away from anything heavy in the kitchen, take the heavy hand off the dishes, and come up with lighter fare, almost patio food.”

Of course if you want you can get asparagus any time of year; the largest grower in the world is Peru, followed by China and Mexico, while the most important importer is the United States.

However, “it doesn’t feel right eating asparagus in December or January,” said Kent. “That’s as strange as eating braised dishes in August.”

How would Kent prepare asparagus when he gets his hands on some of the slender, pale green stalks?

“I would just blanch it and serve it hot or cold with a little vinaigrette. I’ve been experimenting with some of the lighter Belgian blond beers, making a vinaigrette with some of that and some whole-grain mustard and maybe a little shallot, and it makes a wonderful light dressing. That and a nice salad and a good crisp white wine sound like a meal to me.”

In fact, Kent said, the restaurant is bringing in lighter wines for spring too, delicate whites and rosés. “I love rosés in spring,” he said. “They’re perfect.”

Karen Ross, chef de cuisine at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, said that spring is her favorite season for cooking.

“I love being able to go to the farmers markets, which will be opening soon,” she said, “and getting wonderful fresh greens and vegetables, even things I hadn’t thought about, and bringing them back and figuring out how to work with them.”

The difference between cooking in winter and cooking in spring, said Ross, is that in spring “you can showcase flavors and keep everything light, fresh and clean. You can let the food speak for itself. You don’t have to braise food for hours to extract the flavors or cover up anything.”

While one might think that a spring menu is an appropriate opportunity for lighter soups, Ross said that was not the case at Erling Jensen, named for the restaurant’s owner and executive chef.

“Our clientele is pretty set on what they like,” she said, “and what they like are bisques and heavier soups. We’ve tried lighter soups but they haven’t gone over well. Now that we have a bar menu, we may try experimenting and offer a variety and see if we can persuade people to try them.”

“I’m looking forward to all the pea and beans,” said Richard Saviori, owner and chef of Thyme Bistro, “and later, more toward June, the butterbeans and lady peas. I like to do a succotash with all those. We’ll be getting rid of the braised items on the menu and doing more grilled meat and fish.”

“Oh, spring!” said Michael Hudman, with the enthusiasm of a young bacchante in a budding beech grove.

Hudman is one half of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, the other half being longtime friend and collaborator Andrew Ticer. The duo will be in New York on June 11 cooking at the James Beard House.

Hudman mentioned asparagus but reserved his chief anticipation for green garlic, fava beans, artichokes, rhubarb and, in his words, “collard and turnip shoots. We got them in yesterday and they’re awesome!”

For fava beans, typically seen in the double carapace that makes shucking them so much trouble, Hudman and Ticer get the very young, “super-small” ones that are much easier to work with. “Hopefully we’ll have those next week,” Hudman said.

Green garlic is the young slender shoot of the garlic plant picked before the pungent and assertive bulb forms; it can be used in salads and pasta dishes. Ramps, or wild leeks grow abundantly from South Carolina up to Canada. In flavor they’re milder than garlic and a bit stronger than green onion, though without the latter’s bitterness. Ramps can also be used in pasta, salads and risottos.

“We use the green and the white part of the ramp, and we’ll pickle half of what we get so we can use them all year,” Hudman said.

Though ramps grow all over East Tennessee, Hudman and Ticer have not been able to find a supplier in the state, so their ramps are shipped from Oregon.

Finally, though this is a change that might not occur to many diners, or local chefs for that matter, Hudman said that upcoming menus at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen will feature a lighter meat in the form of rabbit, a creature not typically found in restaurants in Memphis but quite common in Italy.

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