Spring at Anson Mills
We took a short break from the newsletter cycle this winter to groom ansonmills.com for upgrades to its e-commerce system—changes that will find full expression some paces down the road in an expanded new web presence! Toward that end, I have been busy writing background, taking pictures, and working with our design team to make ansonmills.com as beautiful and authentic on the outside as Anson Mills products are within.
When we finally glanced up, spring had crept in—the force that through the green fuse drives the flower—and the prospect of spring recipes flung us briefly into a pre-strawberry funk. We aren’t, after all, on the left coast with its ready supply of supple fava beans, sweet baby artichokes, and tiny English peas; we’re here in the upper registers and chilly elevations of New England. Spring’s tender prodigies—when they appear at all—arrive bedraggled from long travel, and much the worse for wear. A sense of suspended animation made us long for the culinary reciprocity of warmer days.
But anxiety vaporized (as it always does) when the recipes began to put on some weight: one emerges forthrightly a child of spring; one is spring-y and adaptable; and one is just plain fabulous, no matter what the season. We can’t imagine how we ever got by without them.
And now, without delay, a round of introductions . . .
Glenn has spoken of polentina with reverence for years. An ancient soup drawn from the cuisine of poverty—simple broth, thickened slightly with polenta when corn itself was scarce—polentina achieved a longstanding foothold in Italy, where polenta iterations run from liquid all the way to hard bread. Embraced by Italian chefs in this country only on the margins, polentina, when presented, is generally a hot, rustic porridge with torn, wilted greens, and shredded cheese.
At its most elemental, no soup could be easier to fabricate or more surprising in the synergy of its two ingredients—chicken broth and cornmeal—than polentina. Its silky texture and pleasing lightness, and the scent of sweet corn drifting over layers of rich chicken stock proved so captivating we could have eaten ourselves full, scrubbed the pot, and called it a day.
But why stop there? We chose, instead, to imbue this soup with the language of spring: a fillip of satiny leek-scented custard; a crisp toasted-garlic crouton; a wreath sparkling of just-poached leeks. It is a simple dish that delivers spring magic, comfort, and sustenance in each spoonful.
Something bright, fresh, and salad-y for spring seemed fitting, but it was early days yet, so we chose all-season vegetables in the wholesome, colorful, and crunchy range. There is no such thing, really, as an all-season vegetable, of course. But some sustain fewer injuries in the batting rotation than others—carrots, broccoli, red peppers, red onions—and they are the ones we chose. We gave this line-up a touch of glamour with arugula wisps used as herbs, a blast of spicy basil leaves, and a citrus vinaigrette. So far, so blah, right? Vegetables alone rarely rise to the level of surpassing interest, even with herbs. What makes this a winning combination, ultimately, is Anson Mills Farro Piccolo: tiny, sweet, lush, cathartic, and susceptible to flirtations from a full spectrum of flavors . . . no matter what the season. Eating this salad is so much fun you probably won’t notice how healthy it is.
Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cake with Broiled Frosting
Not to produce the overplayed Proust card, but who among us can deny the depths of nostalgia stirred by a simple piece of cake? Its singular compactness, the moist weight of its crumb, and the wave of glossy frosting (sorry, Proust, but frosting has its own potent set of triggers) touch us more poignantly than other sweet things. Already a young woman when I first tasted oatmeal cake, its effect on me approached the rapture of a child. It was a plain, tan-speckled square, swooningly moist—indeed vaguely damp—with a little frill of cinnamon in an otherwise neutral crumb, and a broiled brown sugar topping, scratchy with coconut and sticky with pecans. It was also a cake that could make me feel slightly sick and stingingly repentant when I overindulged. Anything that lays claim to coconut, pecans, brown sugar, and butter captures lust and wantonness, too.
I hadn’t made or tasted oatmeal cake in years. But I got a notion to explore how Anson Mills toasted oats might perform in a recipe typically made with roller-milled oats: instant, quick, or “old-fashioned.” It took lots of tries, and thousands of calories—much to my horror—but this exceptional cake makes excellent use of our bias-cut oats. It has oat flavor, too, and a fine little spring in its moist crumb—no dampness. The topping, which is now officially a frosting, also saw revisions much to its betterment.
This cake is far better than I remember, and the remorse just as bad.
Here’s to restraint, y’all, and Good Food!