I have a love-hate relationship with March. I love that it’s the month that heralds the slow transition into spring. Like the final slog up a really steep hill, we just have to get through it. And the climb through March’s ambivalent days isn’t all thankless toil. There’s robins and foolhardy crocuses and newborn lambs. Morning and evening commutes and drives to and from school can finally be completed in the daylight. The earth emerges bleary-eyed into the shocking brightness of it all, the dirty snow melts away, and we remember what our world looks like stripped bare. It’s all kind of exhilarating and hopeful, isn’t it?
But all that earthen nudity and shocking sunshine makes me a bit panicky as well.
From the purely practical standpoint, the seasonal shift adds countless items to the list of things to do. For example, after the recent snow melt the item “pick up random shovels, sleds and debris buried in drifts” was added to mine. Then there’s all the “get the yard ready for the next iteration of life in Wisconsin.” For six years we lived in Arizona, and it was sooooo easy. A change in seasons usually just meant bringing out or putting away one’s jacket. There was no complete turnover of the yard and equipment required to maintain it at that given calendar moment in time. I begin to panic over all of the “I’ll get these things done over the winter” tasks that I never got to. Repainting rooms. Sorting through paperwork. Completing that first novel. Taking up knitting. Reading Important Books. All of these tasks will, be inevitably left to wait until I’m forced indoors once again at the turn of fall into winter.
And spring begins so quickly–I always try and notice it happening but, like the passing of any of the seasons, I never capture it exactly. Being someone who mourns over the passage of time with real, visceral, gut-wrenching anxiety, the change of seasons can be difficult! The other day my youngest came to me during the night, worried about the fact that some day she would die and that she didn’t want her life to move so quickly. Girl, I feel you. Those are big worries for a little person. I should know, because I had them at that age too, coupled with a complicated concern for limbo and eternity born out of Catholic education. I wish I could tell her that these preoccupations get easier, but they don’t. They just get more manageable and predictable. Spring is tricky. Focus on the perennials.
But would I give it up? Absolutely not. Those years in Arizona slid together too quickly, without the bittersweet mile markers of seasons marching visibly onward. So bring on the tulips and the crocuses, bring on the spring rains that scour the salty crust from the Wisconsin landscape. I’ll only get so many springs in my lifetime, and I intend to do my best to wring the essence out of this one. And those piles of indoor projects will just have to wait patiently in the corners once again. The lion of March is prowling at the door.
I am please to announce that I have found the holy grail of quick meals: the Dutch Baby. Also known as a German pancake, this dish is baked in the oven an is sort of a cross between a regular pancake, a frittata and a Yorkshire pudding / popover. The batter is like a runny pancake batter with a little bit more egg to it. This eggy rise in the oven gives it a crustiness of a frittata, and it’s also cooked in a cast iron pan. And like a Yorkshire pudding, the pan is preheated empty in the oven, coated in butter, and then the batter is poured into the piping hot vessel and left along to cook. The kids love it and, given enough hot sauce, Jimmy loves it too! This staple meets a number of criteria for a quick main meal:
- Quick. Assuming about 15 minutes to preheat the oven to 450 degrees, this dish can go from zero to sixty in thirty minutes.
- Throw-togetherable. I’ve never been good at “winging it” when it comes to meals; generally I plan everything out for the week an leave nothing to chance. Given the fact that I’m currently phoning in most of life, I’ve had to go to the pantry plan-less more than once in the past couple of weeks. Dutch Baby to the rescue! If you have milk and eggs and an otherwise reasonable stocked pantry, you can make a Dutch Baby!
- Leftover stretcher. Typically I stretch leftover veggies, meat, etc. over rice or in a soup. The Dutch Baby can act as a blank canvas on which reheat leftovers can be applied.
- Customizable. My kids love meals in which they can choose what to put on. Think taco bar, bake potato bar, bibimbap. Add Dutch Baby to the mix.
- Can double as entree or dessert. The basic recipe can be garnished with savory items an then the remnants can be garnished with sweet things (powdered sugar, Hershey’s syrup) too.
The basic recipe that I use come from What Do You Crave, which I found on Pinterest. It has a higher egg:flour ratio than some of the other standards, which I like. It calls for cheddar and spinach to be added to the mix, but you can omit these and add a splash of vanilla extract instead to make it sweet. I like to keep the cheddar in it for savory preparations, as it adds a nice saltiness to the mix rather than actual salt, which can inhibit the rise of the eggs.
Some useful tips to make it even easier:
- Mix up the eggs and milk in a blender to get them nice and frothier, then whiz in the dry ingredients and add-ins.
- Just before mixing up, preheat your oven. Let the batter rest while the oven is preheating. During this rest time you can prep your toppings
- If you are doubling the mixture, do so in two separate cast iron skillets or 8×8 pans rather than one large casserole, otherwise the middle won’t rise as well, and more edges=more delicious crust.
Here’s some toppings that have proved popular:
- Breakfast at dinner: bacon, sausage, sauteed veggies, another egg
- Mexican: beans, chorizo, cheese, avocado, salsa
- Herby: sauteed leeks & mushrooms, chives
- Summertime: tomatoes, basil, mozzarella
Remember: any of these toppings can be added to your base as well!
I always get a bit melancholy this time of year. It’s ridiculous, because the changing Midwest landscape seems so exuberant and joyful, but there it is. When I was a kid, sure I was happy that the school year was over and the summer stretched lazily out in front of me. But the end of the year festivities always fell flat. I think that part of this depressive tendency has something to do with the cumulative effects of six months of Wisconsin’s meager winter sunlight. I suppose that biology played a role, but over time I realize that most of it is pure nostalgia. My response to this past weekend confirms that I just don’t handle the passage of time well at all. All of spring’s celebrated milestones and kids moving on; the reminders of the ephemeral nature of time are too much for my naturally angsty soul! Here’s some of the most recent evidence (caveat: I cry over well-written commercials, so take it with a grain of salt):
Things I cried about this weekend:
- Senior “memory posters” at the dance recital. Every year, the graduating seniors get to put together a collage of dance memories and a few words. I routinely stand in front of these posters dissolving into a weepy pile of mush. The old shots of the round, awkward preschool versions in puffy tutus compared with the “now” shots of these lithe young women. And I know that every girl’s parent says the same thing: “I don’t know how it happened so fast.”
- Tiny confection-like dancers at the dance recital. If the senior displays weren’t enough, I then am confronted by the puffy little preschool ballerinas being led clumsily onto the stage. Their tutus as wide as they are tall, they routinely steal the show. However, while the rest of the audience “Aaaaahs” over the cuteness and laughs at the one ham in the crowd, I’m left with tears silently streaming down my face. In 15 years, the little bon bons’ parents won’t know how it happened . . .
- Graduation blessing at church. I might have been able to handle this one, so staid and formal in nature, were it not for everyone whispering how they could “remember when they were just a little baby.” Stop remembering that so easily! It was years and years ago, that much time must have dulled your memories! It couldn’t have just slipped by unnoticed like that! Luckily, my choir robes are long-sleeved and highly absorbent of human tears.
- Facebook feed crammed with pictures of graduates. These always do me in more than prom pictures. The look has changed so little over time–gowns, mortar boards, awkward poses next to Sunday-best parents. It’s easy to dredge of memories of all of those other graduation photos filed away. I cans till remember the cheap feeling of my own high school graduation gown, how my high heels sunk into the football field over which a stage had been set up. If I can remember THAT so clearly, it must have only been a few years ago, right? Who are all these young whippersnappers messing with my sense of reality? Cue waterworks.
- My girls’ birthday pictures. So, I don’t know how to use technology. I needed a tutorial over the weekend to figure out how to find pictures and export them to this blog. It was ugly, and Jimmy has suggested that teaching my grandfather how to use the computer was easier than helping me. Apparently I kept saying things like, “stop clicking so fast!” and “how’d you get there?” It was not a pretty scene, but he was saved from utter spousal destruction by the discovery of girls’ birthday dress photo collection. This is a little tradition we started of taking their picture in the same dress every year. Please join me in rapturous weeping over the first and most recent editions of each:
- Free donut for National Donut Day. I’m not even kidding. Nobody be kind to me for the next couple of weeks, I seriously need to recalibrate.
And here’s the thing: I know that all of these tearjerking examples have to do with kids getting older. I’m not sad about that fact, not exactly. I’m interested by them as they change. I was never a huge fan of infancy to begin with. I’m just petrified of the fact that it all goes so quickly. I get sad every spring when the tulips drop their petals, every fall when the last leaf falls; somehow I didn’t pay close enough attention.
How can we possibly pay close enough attention?
I’m sure that I ate rhubarb before that, but the first time that I remember eating it was with my Grandpa Bier. I was trailing him as he puttered out in the yard, surveying the first blooms of spring and pointing out where things were coming up. We stopped by the row of rhubarb plants and he cut me off a juicy, ruby red chunk to taste. I did–and it was awful! He laughed as I puckered my lips and spit out that rhubarb. He cut some more, discarding the large, flat leaves that he warned me were poisonous (how could a plant be simultaneously poisonous and edible?), and we headed inside to deliver the bounty to Grandma.
Rhubarb (and asparagus–its cousin in the odd world of perennial vegetables) holds a dear place in my heart. As soon as the first hint of spring arrives, it races to assert its presence in the barren garden. It is consistently and reliably the first edible of the season, and as such deserves to be celebrated! In addition, when sweetened up a bit from its native form, it’s plain old delicious.
Most people enjoy rhubarb in baked preparations. Rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie (with or without strawberries) are always popular, especially when served warm with vanilla ice cream. I recently made this recipe to great acclaim. I only used about half of the tapioca called for, because I like my fruit pie a little bit runny. I also substituted a crumb topping for added flavor and crunch. Another go-to sweet preparation is as a sauce, kind of like applesauce. You can simply cook it down by simmering with a bit of sugar and water over an hour or so. Adjust the sugar to make sure you don’t drown out the flavor of the rhubarb with over-sweetness. Many recipes that I’ve tried err on the side of being overly sweet, so make sure to add less sugar than the recipe calls for and adjust up as necessary. Remember, too, the the cooking process itself will cut a bit of the tang on its own.
Rhubarb actually holds a lot of moisture, so don’t forget to add a thickener to your baked preparations. The pie recipe above uses tapiocs, which is usually on a highly (seldom-accessed) shelf in the baking section. Minute tapioca doesn’t muddy the sauce of the baked good quite as much as flour, so I prefer it, especially in fruit pies. If you use minute tapioca to thicken your pie or crisp, try breaking down the large beads in a coffee grinder or spice grinder first. If you don’t have one, let the filling sit mixed up for about 15 minutes or so to allow the beads to soften. Then add them to the pie shell.
Rhubarb makes a nice savory sauce or glaze with lighter meats such as pork or chicken. You can even flavor homemade or store bought barbeque sauces with a rhubarb sauce or compote to get some of that delicious spring flavor.
I’ve tried some rhubarb jelly recipes, however I find that the flavor of the rhubarb gets lost under all of the sweetness necessary in the preserving process. I prefer to freeze rhubarb sauce to enjoy its flavor throughout the year. But really, the best way to enjoy it is fresh from the earth as a celebration of warmer days to come!