By Alexis Agliano Sanborn
“On the first gale of spring, I set out to town to buy a korokke.” - Hamaue Koichi
March is a time of transition. Often characterized by blustery and tempestuous weather, this month hails the start of a New Year according to the lunar calendar. With any luck, the greys and browns of winter are replaced by the varied hues of greens as new growth awakens after its dormancy. In fact, the first week of March is known in the seasonal calendar as: 草木萌動（そうもくめばえいずる）Soumokumebaeizuru – the time when plants show their first buds.
What’s on our tables begins to change as well. Fresh and bitter flavors of new greens and herbs begin to sneak into our dishes, causing us to sit up. Yes, spring is on its way! It’s neither potatoes nor onions of winter, nor salads and sunflowers of summer – but somewhere in-between. What we enjoy in March are the most virgin flavors that nature has to offer. Flavors that have not even come into being. Such is the newness of March.
In Japan, during this time of year sansai tori begins – or the picking and foraging of wild greens. Though tormented by storms and gusts of wind, this new growth rises persistently. We now find itadori, or Japanese knotweed, nobiru a variety of Japanese hardneck garlic,tsukushi – the fertile shoot of the field horsetail, bracken (warabi), fiddleneck fern fronds (zenmai) and taranome or the new growth from the Japanese angelica tree. Often full of astringent tannins, the Japanese deep fry or blanche these greens to retain the lively flavors.
Growing up in Aichi Prefecture, Misako Sassa, contributing writer at Chopsticks NYC, About.com, and owner and chef of Japanese Culinary Studio NYC, spent many a day in late March and early April searching for the spring greens with her family. Even here in New York City, she has managed to find her own seasonal delights growing wild in the parks near her Washington Heights home. Yet, for her the month of March conjures up the pastel hues of Girls' Day, or Hinamatsuri: the varied array of subtle pinks, yellows, and greens found in chirashi sushi (vinegared sushi), hina-arare (pastel rice crackers), and clear soup with clams. Incidentially, clam shells are a symbol of a united and peaceful couple, as their pair of clam shells fits perfectly, and none but the original pair can do so. A symbol of luck for young ladies who may become future brides, they are a staple of the season (Check out her clam soup recipe below!)
These days, as the weather warms it is not Hinamatsuri dishes that she longs for, but of the sawara or Spanish mackerel. “It isn’t spring without sawara,” says Misako. Sawara is readily found around New York. “You just have to know where to look.” Misako’s frequents the farmer’s market at Union Square, but if none can be found she suggests visiting Chinatown. “You might have to go to a few places – not every fish store has the same quality. Some are good for some kinds of fish, and some for others.” One of her favorite ways to cook this fish is by salting and grilling it, known as ichiyaboshi. “Leave the fish uncovered overnight,” she advises, “So that the skin can get nice and crisp.” A simple broil in the oven, and served with yuzu or lemon and a bit of grated daikon is all you need for this refreshing and satisfying meal.
Whatever the taste of springtime, as the days lengthen and warm, something stirs within us. We hope that by the end of the month you can take to the fields and streets and find the budding joys of spring. For now, keep an eye out for those first treasures of the season.
Misako’s Clam Soup with Broccoli Rabe
4 clams (small size cherry stone clams)
2 cups water
3-inch long konbu kelp
6 tips of broccoli rabe
2 thin sliced of ginger, julienned
1 tsp light soy sauce
Salt to taste
- Soak konbu kelp in two cups of water and let sit for at least one hour.
- Wash clams under cold water using a brush.
- Cook broccoli rabe tips in boiling water for 1 minute and quickly put them in an ice bath to cool. Drain well and set them aside.
- In a small pot, pour in konbu soaked water along with konbu and add clams.
- Bring it to a boil, and then take out the konbu.
- When white foam starts coming up on surface, skim them as much as possible using ladle to keep the soup clear.
- As soon as a shell opens, remove it from the pot and set it aside. (Don’t wait for all shells to open.)
- Season the soup with light soy sauce and taste. Add salt if necessary.
- Place clams and broccoli rabe in an individual bowl and pour in soup.
Garnish with julienned ginger and serve while hot.