And just like that, the signs are everywhere.
The geese have been reverse-commuting for weeks, now. I haven't spied frost on the grass since last Friday. Zoë spotted (and squashed) her first ant, Thursday. We've moved from ice skating to puddle-jumping, en route to school.
With the time change, we've resumed our evening walks. I had forgotten how much I loved last year's strolls, hunting bats, ogling blossoms, gulping sweet air. Although this year, our walks look rather more like spring runs.
The air is not warm, but it is less cold. We've gone outside without coats, without shoes, even. Though at not-quite-sixty, we maybe might've jumped the gun. We've played at the park. On the equipment. One can go to a park in mid-winter, here, but the climbing structure is strictly off-limits, pre-thaw. (You remember that old story: tongue, monkey bars, forever after... )
Rain coats are co-habiting with winter jackets in our closet. I returned the snow boots to storage, this week. The wellies have promised they'll pick up the slack.
I know spring's first blooms have come and gone in many parts; we've no such arc, so early, around these parts. But what we lack in first dibs, we make up on momentum. Every last growing thing's on the move, a mile a minute
The snowdrops came up, and then were snowed under, and already, somehow, are on their way out. The pear that looked so foreboding last month, is now decorated to the hilt in gray fuzzy buds.
I spied a purple tip in the crocus on Monday; by Tuesday, it was smiling wide. And by Friday? Well, we might as well have had a tiny troop of Huskies, rooting madly in the lawn border bleachers.
The honeysuckle's leafing out, the hellebore are opening, virginia bluebells are adding an inch a day. Dozens of plump, closed-up daffodil buds are taunting us, daily, mercilessly. There are even, already, small green clusters of lush. Tulips, I think. Time will tell.
Chives are leading the herbal brigade, with oregano, tarragon and parsley pulling up the rear. I was ready to report we'd no rhubarb yet, having checked nearly daily these past two weeks. But lo and behold, Thursday afternoon, five tiny red tips were found poking through. We've been talking up rhubarb soda all winter. I am very much looking forward to that.
The garden gloves are out, and the small rakes, and there are little middens left from outdoor play. We've been re-acquainting ourselves with soft dirt (and with black half-moons beneath fingernails). My front porch has been re-decorated for spring, my front entry's now smudged not with salt but sidewalk chalk. We were even able to dig in our teaspoon of a sandbox while the corned beef burbled on St. Patrick's Day.
The books coming home from kindergarten have more syllables, longer sentences. I catch him reading all the time, now, signs, newspapers, book spines ("H-om-e Ch-ee-se M-a-k-ing ??") He just can't help himself.
Watching plants grow is neat. Watching readers grow is crazy-fantastic.
We hung a mesh bag of yarn scraps from the crabapple. We're hoping the birds will partake, for their nests. The bag appears to be emptying, though we're not sure if it's the wind, or regular visits from discreet customers. We'll be scanning the trees for fancy nests, now through June.
Indoors, we are back to soft, lemony light. When we're there, anyway. We came home from school before noon, last week. We forgot to go in until nearly three. I'm glad I said my farewells when I did, since it's all of a sudden unmistakably spring.
Our school is on spring holiday these next ten days, and I intend to spend the time with my kiddos. But before I go, I wanted to leave you with a little something, our beloved rich skillet corn bread.
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I must mention I'm no more qualified to talk about true cornbread than to speak of real biscuits. I was born about as far from the South as a person can be and still call oneself a citizen. I do know enough to know that this loaf is nowhere near authentic. I also know it is unmistakably delicious.
Cornbread, as a genre, has a lot going for it. It belongs to that lovely 'quick breads' category, meaning baking soda and/or powder, not yeast, do all the heavy lifting. If that bread was all about long, lazy waiting, this one is pure instant gratification. Thirty minutes, start to finish, sudden whim to dripping honey. Though speed is really the least of its virtues.
The thing that separates this cornbread from tradition is a nice hefty throw of sour cream in the batter. Add to this a slug of melted butter, and you'll see why it's prefaced 'Rich'. The original recipe hails from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen, a fantastic book that proves again that vegetarians eat better. (You know this, right?) It is humbly tucked away at the very back, and were it not for my chronic flipping (and cooking) through the Bishop's excellent recipes, I might never have found it at all. Shudder.
But find it I did, some six years ago, and it's been a mainstay at our table, ever since.
Where ingredients are concerned, I barely sway from Bishop's original, though I'd note that if you have access to local cornmeal, oh please do use it. Fresh cornmeal is bright, sweet, alive, with a spunk that somehow survives the heat. That said, I've often made it with good grocery store cornmeal (I love Bob's Red Mill Coarse Ground), and it's still fantastic; don't be held back
My main departure—and to my mind, a landmark one—involves one simple technique and one whopper of a pan. Bishop calls for a standard-issue square glass pan, and having used one myself, I can tell you it's fine. I call for a standard-issue cast iron skillet, preheated with the oven, generously buttered just before the batter goes in. Having compared the two, I can tell you the cast iron version is outrageous.
Can you see, on that first picture, there, the deep golden edges, that slightly sunken interior rim? See, what happens is this: when you heat cast iron to 400°, then slip in a knob of butter just before you pour, the batter begins to cook instantly when it hits. You hear it. You see it. It sizzles, climbs the side, seals on impact, forms a gangbuster crisp golden crunchity crust. Oh, and that valley, an inch in from the edge? A bit of melted butter spills over the instant-crust, leaving a faint, extra-rich circumference behind. I kid you not.
If you are used to a light, cakey cornbread (think boxed mix), know that this hails from different stock. There is a toothsomeness from the coarse grind of the cornmeal, and a grand tenderness from the generosity of fat. It has personality and substance and heft and yet is still totally ethereal, somehow. It is light in that unlikely way that croissants and whipped cream and pie crusts are light. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, it tastes profoundly of corn. Not all cornbreads do. I appreciate this simple truth about it. Also that it tastes like sunshine, buttered up and baked. Which, as we stand with our feet between seasons, is exactly what I want to be eating right now.
Happy March to you, friends. I'll return to this space in two weeks' time. Until then, enjoy your spring, however it's sproinging.
Sunshine in a Skillet (i.e. Rich Corn Bread)
adapted from Jack Bishop, A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen
I've adjusted Bishop's excellent original only slightly, using salted butter and a range of sugar, in case you like an extra touch of sweet. Also, I have been known to substitute Greek Yogurt when I've come up short on sour cream (2% or higher only; non-fat greek or ordinary yogurt don't work). Sour cream is better, but desperation happens.
Preheating the skillet with the oven is fine, though if you happen to think of it twenty minutes early, by all means, get it smoking; your crust will thank you for it. My skillet is 10" across at the flared top. If yours is larger or smaller, simply adjust baking time accordingly. Leftovers remain excellent three days out: slice wedges in two, and heat in a 350° oven for 10 minutes, until edges crisp and center is warm.
1 1/3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2/3 cup coarsely ground, whole-grain cornmeal (anything local, or Bob's Red Mill, are great)
2-3 tablespoons sugar, to taste
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, divided (6 melted tablespoons for the batter, 2 solid tablespoons for the pan)
1 large egg
2/3 cup sour cream
1 cup milk
Place rack in middle of oven, place cast iron skillet on rack, and set oven to 400°, to preheat. (Alternatively, butter an 8-inch square glass pan, and set aside until batter and oven are ready.)
In a medium bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a 4-cup liquid measure, add milk and sour cream (measuring directly into the cup), then eggs, then whisk with a fork to combine. Add 6 tablespoons melted butter (reserving remaining 2 for skillet), and stir briefly to combine. Add liquids to dry ingredients, and with a rubber spatula, stir just to combine, until no lumps remain.
Prepare skillet: add remaining two tablespoons' butter to hot skillet, and return to oven for 1 minute, to melt and heat. Pour batter into hot, buttered skillet, and return to oven. (If using glass pan, pour batter into cold, greased pan, place in oven, then proceed as follows.) Bake until edges are golden and pulling away, and center is domed slightly and just cooked through, about 25 minutes. Cornbread is finished when a knife inserted at the center returns moist crumbs.
Serve wedges directly from the skillet (handle covered, trivet under), with butter, honey, and napkins aplenty.