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Recipe: A stirring spring menu, fit for a celebration

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Pan-fried breaded pork chops and a spring salad with sweet herbs, egg and walnuts. For his birthday, David Tanis is making what he craves: a special salad, breaded pork chops, and comforting baba au rhum.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Pan-fried breaded pork chops and a spring salad with sweet herbs, egg and walnuts. For his birthday, David Tanis is making what he craves: a special salad, breaded pork chops, and comforting baba au rhum.

I was born on a cold day in April. Tulips were pushing up to bloom in banks of snow, they tell me. A terribly evocative image — or was my mother being melodramatic?

It’s easy to forget that spring can take its sweet time. As I write this from upstate New York, there have been a few warm, sunny days. Things are beginning to stir. Buds are visible on branches. At the farmers market, however, it’s still mostly potatoes, apples and cabbage, wintered over.

But, as it is my birthday, I’m making a special salad — a glorious, colorful, fresh-tasting salad — and I want it to look and taste like spring.

A bit of artifice is required. Thank goodness for farmers with hothouses (and for supermarkets that stock produce from California). I want a zesty mixture. Watercress, dandelion, curly endive, escarole, radicchio, mizuna, spinach and red sorrel leaves are all good candidates.

In addition, there must be texture: wedges of golden beets; slivers of celery, radish and young turnip; toasted walnuts and chopped egg; fresh tarragon and dill. Lemon juice, mustard and walnut oil give the dressing depth and brightness.

The ideal place on the menu for this eye-popping salad is as an accompaniment to pan-fried breaded pork chops. Since the chops are rich and fatty, a salad is most welcome, and they look beautiful together as well.

For dessert, there’s no birthday cake. What I crave is baba au rhum, a classic French bistro offering, essentially a soggy, syrup-soaked, boozy delight. The kind I like best are baked in muffin tins or cylindrical baba molds.

While it is possible to make babas the same day you serve them, it is easier to bake this yeast cake a day ahead (but soak them just a few hours before serving to be certain they’re good and wet). They are blessed with a dollop of whipped cream and an extra splash of rum, and preferably eaten with a spoon.

HERBED SPRING SALAD WITH EGG AND WALNUTS

  • 6 ounces (4 cups lightly packed) watercress or, preferably, a mixture of zesty salad greens
  • 3 medium golden beets, cooked, peeled and cut in wedges
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced red radish (6 to 8 medium radishes)
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced turnip (or small kohlrabi or watermelon radish)
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced celery heart, plus tender leaves (from center of 1 celery head)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped dill
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
  • 4 (7-minute) boiled eggs
  • 1 cup toasted walnut halves
  • >> Vinaigrette:
  • 2 tablespoons finely diced shallot
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated garlic (from 2 small cloves)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil

>> To make the vinaigrette: Put shallots in a small bowl. Add mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and garlic. Stir together; add a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk in walnut oil. Set aside for a few minutes, then taste and adjust lemon juice and salt.

Wash and dry salad greens. Tear large leaves into smaller pieces, if desired. Wrap in a clean towel and refrigerate if not serving immediately.

Just before serving, put beet wedges in bottom of a wide salad bowl. Add radish, turnip and celery heart. Season with salt and pepper. Add dill, tarragon and half the vinaigrette. Toss gently to coat.

Add greens and combine to distribute sliced vegetables evenly. Cut eggs in half; arrange over salad. Scatter walnuts over top. Drizzle with remaining vinaigrette. Serves 4.

PAN-FRIED BREADED PORK CHOPS

  • 4 (8-ounce) center-cut pork chops, about 1/2-inch thick
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • Small pinch cayenne powder
  • All-purpose flour, for sprinkling
  • 3 cups fresh breadcrumbs (from 8 slices crustless day-old sandwich bread)
  • 1 cup clarified butter, extra-virgin olive oil or lard, plus more as needed
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Lay pork chops on a baking sheet, and season well on both sides with salt and pepper.

Combine eggs and milk in a low, flat bowl. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne.

Sprinkle flour generously over chops on both sides, then shake off excess. Submerge floured chops in egg mixture, turning them over several times to coat well. Leave in egg mixture 5 minutes.

Use one hand to remove a chop from batter and drain off excess liquid. Place chop on a baking sheet and, with other hand, heavily sprinkle with breadcrumbs on both sides. Repeat with remaining chops.

Sprinkle each chop again with crumbs, patting with your hand to make sure crumbs adhere and coat well. Refrigerate, uncovered, until ready to fry.

Set a wide cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add clarified butter to a depth of 1/2 inch. When butter is hot, lay in the chops without crowding, and let them fry very gently, about 4 to 5 minutes per side, until beautifully golden brown. (Turn down heat if they seem to be browning too fast.) If your pan is small, cook in 2 batches and keep finished chops warm in a 250-degree oven.

Blot cooked chops on paper towels. Transfer to a warm platter or individual plates. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 4.

BABA AU RHUM

  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • Pinch fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened, plus more for greasing pan
  • 2 cups (256 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/2 cup (80 grams) golden raisins, soaked in hot water and drained
  • Whipped cream, for serving
  • >> Rum syrup:
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 3 green cardamom pods
  • Zest of 1 large orange, removed in strips with vegetable peeler
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup dark rum, brandy or whiskey, plus more for serving

Put yeast and sugar in medium bowl and stir in water. Let sit 10 minutes, until bubbly.

Add eggs and salt; whisk together.

In a medium mixing bowl, work butter into flour until mixture resembles wet sand. Add egg-yeast mixture and drained raisins; beat with a wooden spoon to make a soft, sticky dough. (Alternatively, prepare dough in a stand mixer.) Cover bowl and let dough rise in warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Butter 2 mini-muffin tins or 12 mini-ramekins.

Uncover dough, dust lightly with flour and turn out onto a clean work surface. Add flour as necessary to make dough manageable and knead lightly to make a large, slightly sticky ball. Cut dough into 12 pieces of equal size. Dust each with flour, roll each into a ball and place in muffin tins or ramekins. Cover loosely; let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake babas until lightly browned on top, 15 to 20 minutes. Unmold onto a baking sheet; return to oven for 5 minutes to brown all over. Remove and cover babas with a clean towel to keep them soft. (Store, cooled, in an airtight container at room temperature if making in advance.)

Meanwhile, make syrup: Put honey, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and orange zest in a medium saucepan. Add water, bring to a boil. Lower heat to a gentle simmer and cook 10 minutes.

Stir in vanilla and rum; turn off heat and let cool.

About 2 hours before serving, place babas, top side down, in a deep baking dish. Pour rum syrup over and let soak. Turn babas over a few times in syrup — they should get quite soggy.

To serve, place one or two babas in a low soup plate. Top with a little more syrup and splash on about a tablespoon of rum. Serve a big spoonful of whipped cream on the side. If desired, garnish with a strip of orange zest, plucked from the syrup. Makes 12 small babas.

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