I do believe apologies are in order.
March: Mea culpa. How wrong I was.
I can't imagine what I was thinking, equivocating on about your fine self.
Waffle, schmoffle. You're not ambivalent in the least. You totally have a purpose, and it is called pause. Respite, re-calibration, ramping up. Your job is to make sure we're sick and tired of winter, and ready and waiting for spring. Roger, that.
You're St. Patrick's Day. Jeepers creepers. I love any month that calls for slumps of spoon-tender corned beef, and golden roast parsnips, and soda bread so good, we ought to make it monthly.
You're Pi Day! Excuse to play fractions, and talk equivalents, and feast on pizza and pie, the same night. And, on an existential note, to debate whether a properly proportioned Pac-Man is two-thirds or three-quarters of one whole.
You're old toys, re-discovered, as days remain cold, and kids dig ever deeper into closets. Who couldn't use a second Christmas? Your weather makes it so.
You're old games which play surprisingly like new. Same old Uno. Brand new kids. Older, wiser, now able to hold cards! Uno, open-hand, is an important first step, but somehow, it just isn't the same.
You are new-to-us thrifted games, good games, the sort that amuse and challenge and fit between snack and homework. My favorite.
You are unexpected gifts, logic puzzles, generously given by kind friends. (Thank you, friend.) So small, it fits in the palm of small hands. So addictive, it might keep one up until eleven. Oneself, and one unnamed twelve year old. School or no school, the thing must be solved. (It's not. Yet. A few more late nights.)
And even if March is raw throats and runny noses, sick days and sleepless nights and lots of missed school, it seems like last gasps, like end parens, on a season that surely is near done. (Surely?)
Besides, it opened up a Monday to devour a sweet book, start to finish, between tissues and temperature-taking and tea.
You are rain, rain, rain! I adore rain, rain, rain. After Winter's deep freeze, its kitty-paw snow, I'd all but forgotten that plip-plop, plip-plop. It actually woke me up one night. Then hypnotized me right back to sleep.
Except when you send the odd flurry of snow. The day after Winter is over, say. It didn't stick around, but it did inspire in my eldest an a cappella Twelve Days of Christmas revision: On the second day of Spring, it was twenty-two degrees...
(I think, March, it's fair to say you also have a sense of humor.)
You are crunchy brown earth, too thuggish to dig, too ugly to not at least feel the itch. I'm not one to order seeds after Christmas, to poke with a spade, eager to begin. But I recognize that this March moment's important, this awareness that someday soon, something must be done.
You are pre-daffodils I dare to cut, when the buds are barely more bulge than stem. I knew I was pushing it. I expected nothing. It bloomed anyway. Roger that.
And then, there's the light, the last faded light, the final throes of Winter's soft hum. Raging bright sun is returning with a vengeance, and I'm dusting off my soon-requisite squint. And doubling down, drinking my fill of the intermittent, exquisite overcast. The flannel skies, the tip-toe mornings, the pale monochrome afternoons. Hush light.
In the past week, between clear and glare, we've been gifted a few pigeon-belly grey days. Oyster shell days. Damp newspaper days. Old sock, fresh concrete, dirty mop water days. Days with light so gauzy and fair that even laundry baskets look appealing. Full, unfolded laundry baskets. Did I mention I love this light?
So while I might not call March my most favorite month, it seems I rather like it, food trenches and all.
For pie or no pie, good games or bad, we are still weeks away from spunky fresh food. This, I cannot fix. We indulge, right now, in mangoes and oranges, the odd far-flung berry to keep the kids from scurvy. We pad our menus with hardy roots and leaves that aren't actually March fare, not here anyway, but which at least look and taste the part. We dig deep into grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. We rub elbows with roots and crucifers, until everyone involved needs corduroy patches.
Indeed, without March through mid-April, I'm not sure I'd love roots and crucifers like I do. It's during this last, long peninsula of winter that I double down, take stock, get serious. When I pause long enough to pay heed to the turnips, appreciate the cabbage, give thanks for the carrot.
Ah, the old carrot. The ubiquitous carrot. Year-round citizen of our fridge, daily guest at our table. It probably deserves its own place setting, by now, so regularly do we reach for its crunch. Useful, dependable, versatile carrot. So common the carrot, it can sometimes seem as familiar as tube socks you buy by the twelve-pack. As dull, also.
What follows is a way with carrots that is many things, none of them dull. It is the Ginger and Carrot Stir-Fry, from Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford's Beyond the Great Wall. And if you wonder why I led off with ginger, read on: it is no typo.
This is a simple, straightforward stir-fry, a classic in most respects. Two firm veg, cut slender and fine, for lightning-fast cooking and bold spare flavor. Blistering heat, a splash of oil, garlic and chili, for depth and smoke. A modicum of pork, mere ounces, really, so little the authors don't include it in the title.
Which brings us back to that intriguing title.
Which begins, significantly, with ginger.
Which is where things get interesting.
One cup of fresh ginger, the ingredient list reads. One-third of a pound. One Pac-Man mouth's worth. I probably don't need to tell you that that is quite a lot of ginger. I might, however, need to explain why this lot is an excellent idea.
I don't know about you, but I tend to think of ginger as an aromatic. I've no qualms about using several slices in tea, or heaped tablespoons in greens, or ounces in cakes. But it wasn't until a few years back, when I first took this recipe out for a spin, that I came to see ginger as vegetable, an ingredient in its own right. I was, as they say, dubious. Needlessly. It is so, so right.
Slivered and stir-fried, something happens to ginger, something unexpected, something wonderful. The heat seems to seal in the heat, the wok's sear mellowing the root's burn. What remains is an invigorating warmth, a thread of zing, a welcoming glow.
Against the simple sweet of the carrot, whose texture and shape it echoes like irony, the ginger dazzles, thrills, delights. High drama as dinner. Root and alter-root. And as happy a wake-up call for carrots as any early Spring eater could ask for.
Which brings me, March, to my second mea culpa: I called you the trenches. When will I learn?
With meals like these, there's quite a lot to like about eating in the fine month of March.
Ginger + Carrot Stir-Fry, with Pork
adapted from Beyond the Great Wall, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
Look for fresh ginger that is firm and unblemished; wrinkly, shriveled roots will be fibrous. Asian groceries stock excellent, inexpensive ginger, though most supermarkets carry it, also. To matchstick the peeled carrots and ginger, I cut deep diagonal 1/16" slices, stack the slices 3-4 deep, then cut the slices into 1/16" slivers. Presto: matchsticks! As with any stir-fry, have all ingredients chopped and ready. The cooking itself takes under 10 minutes. The original calls for a dozen crushed Sichuan peppercorns. I typically use freshly ground black pepper instead, but feel free to trot out the lip-tingling original, if you've got it.
I sometimes increase the pork to eight ounces, to please my resident carnivore. That said, I think this would sing without any, with instead small cubes of smoked tofu, or tempeh, or even edamame, any mild toothsome bit to round out the bright roots. If using pork, freeze 15 minutes first for simpler slicing.
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
5-8 ounces pork tenderloin, thinly sliced into bite-size bits (1/2 x 1"), optional
2-3 dried red thai chilis
About 2/3 pound carrots (6 med., 4 lg.), peeled and cut into matchsticks (1 3/4 finished cups)
About 1/3 pound fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks (1 finished cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
several grinds black pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Have all ingredients sliced and ready.
Heat an empty wok or heavy skillet over high heat. Add oil, swirl to coat bottom, and let heat until it shimmers, 30 seconds. Add garlic, stir-fry 10 seconds, then add pork and chilis. Stir-fry for 3-4 minutes, nudging pork to separate, and to expose all pieces to the hot pan, until meat is seared and coloring here and there.
Add carrots and ginger, and stir-fry for one minute. Add salt, and stir-fry another minute. Add water, cover, and boil vigorously for 3 minutes. Remove lid, and continue to boil briefly, 1-2 minutes, until roots are tender but still toothsome, and sauce has reduced to a near-syrup. Add soy sauce and freshly ground pepper (or crushed Sichuan peppercorns). Stir-fry another minute, taste for seasonings, adjust salt and pepper, and serve immediately.