What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

~William Shakespeare

The sometimes dubious origin of a month’s name. April is the season of spring in the Northern hemisphere and autumn in the Southern hemisphere.

The Roman calendar changed several times between the founding and the fall of the Roman Empire. Prior to the addition of January and February by Numa Pompilius around 700 BCE, April was the second month of the Roman calendar year with March being the first. The city grew briskly, swelled by landless refugees. So, as most were male and unmarried, the then king Romulus (a character of Rome’s founding myth, and one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars who were cast into the river Tiber) arranged to abduct neighboring Sabine women. Of Sabine blood, his successor Numa, who was a wise even cunning leader but lived an austere life, was the legendary second king of Rome.

Numa Pompilius.jpg

Romans considered odd numbers to be lucky, so Numa plucked one day from each of the six months with 30 days, reducing the number of days in the previously defined months. Then, around 450 BCE, the month of April slipped into the fourth slot and was assigned a mere 29 days. With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by a similarly named pope in 1582, another day was added et voilà “30 days hath April,” as does September, June and November.

Though April’s derivation is not certain, a common theory is that the name is rooted in the Latin Aprilis which is derived from the Latin aperire meaning “to open” — perhaps referring to blossoming petals and buds. This coincides not only seasonally but etymologically with the modern Greek use of ἁνοιξις (opening) for the word spring. Others posit that since months are often named for gods and goddesses and Aphrilis is derived from the Greek Aphrodite, one could surmise that the month was named for the Greek goddess of love.

The month of April begins on the same day of the week as July each year, and January in leap years; while it ends on the same day of the week as December every year.

Around the 5th century CE, the Anglo-Saxons referred to the month of April as Oster-monath or Eostre-monath, a reference to the goddess Eostre, whose feast occurred during this month. Saint Bede (a/k/a The Venerable Bede), a learned monk from the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter, believed this gave root to the word Easter which is often observed then.

Bunches of jaunty green asparagus are harbingers in farmers’ markets signalling that winter has finally given way to spring.

ASPARAGI ALLA MILANESE (ASPARAGUS MILANESE)

Cold water
Sea salt
Medium asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed off

Unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large, farm fresh eggs

Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
Lemon zest

Bring a large pot with cold water to a boil. Add the sea salt and then asparagus and cook until crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain and divide the spears evenly among smaller plates or platters. Tent loosely with foil.

Heat a heavy, large non-stick skillet over medium. Heat butter and a splash of olive oil until just lightly shimmering. But, please do not burn or brown the butter. While the fat melts, crack eggs into a glass cup or saucer then slide them into the shimmering oil. Cover with a clear domed lid and adjust the heat so that the white begins to set. Begin spooning the heated fats over the eggs until the runny whites turn opaque and the yolks begin to set ever so slightly, but remain rather runny. (The white no longer clear and the yolk still loose.) Remove to a plate by simply sliding them out of the pan or use a slotted spatula. Place the egg over the bottom half of the cooked asparagus spears, and then season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Grate parmigiano-reggiano over each serving, along with some lemon zest. Serve promptly. (It is nearly peerless when that orange yolk quietly oozes onto the eagerly awaiting grassy flavored spears.)

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Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.
~Blaise Pascal, from Pensées

DUCK RAGOUT WITH POLENTA

While the precise date for Easter is a matter of contention, the celebration is a moveable feast, in that it does not fall on a specified date in Julian or Gregorian calendars. Rather, the day for celebration is determined on a lunisolar calendar—the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal moon) following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox—even though this does not comport to ecclesiatical strictures. Polemics on the nearly endless theological, philosophical, mythological, and even biological controversies surrounding this rose from death holiday will serve little good here. Not that I fear expressing valid doubt; it’s simply a question of venting space.

Since childhood I have however pondered about the duck’s entry into the Easter fray, given that it is bunnies that really lay eggs, right? You know, that common marsupial form of the family Leporidae…or how bunnies, eggs and scavenger hunts are related to the celebration of Jesus dying on a cross and then resurrecting a couple of days later. Apparently, the egg bearing bunny evolved from the fertile Saxon goddess named Oestre, the pagan goddess of spring and personification of dawn. The goddess saved the life of a bird whose wings had been frozen by the snow, making him her pet and some even say her lover. Filled with empathy at the bird’s inability to fly, Oestre morphed him into a snow hare and bestowed upon him the gift of being able to run so rapidly that he could evade hunters. Still sensitive to his early aviary form, she also gave the male hare an ability to lay brilliantly hued (now pastelled) eggs one day each year.

We now know this tale may have been mischievously invented by a monk who became known as Venerable Bede. While research has failed to unearth much mention of Oestre earlier, Bede mentioned her in connection with the pagan festival Eosturmonath in a book authored in 750 CE. So, was the Easter bunny a literary forgery?

Myths built upon myths, all leading to marketing mirth.

A derivative of the French verb ragoûter, meaning “to stimulate the appetite,” ragoût is a thick, deeply intense stew of meat, poultry, fish and/or vegetables. Its northern Italian kin, ragù, is a sauce that often contains ground meats, pancetta, tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, and wine.

As befits its name, this fare is far from taciturn.

4 duck leg-thighs, excess skin trimmed
3 T extra virgin olive oil

3 ribs celery, trimmed and finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 premium anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and minced

6 juniper berries
1 1/2 C dry red wine, such as a Zinfandel or Rhône
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

3 T tomato paste
2 C chicken stock

1 T fresh sage leaves, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sautéed or fried sage leaves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F

Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil, and when it begins to shimmer, add the duck legs, skin side down. Cook until the skin is nicely browned and the fat has begun to render, about 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the legs over and brown the other sides, some 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove and allow to rest.

Add the celery, carrots, onion and garlic to the pot, and stir to combine. Cook until the onion has softened and has just started to color, approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Clear a space in the center of the pot and add the anchovies, then swirl and press them in the fat until they begin to dissolve. Stir further to combine. Add juniper berries, wine, cider vinegar and duck legs, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, approximately 15 minutes.

Add tomato paste and stir to combine, then enough chicken stock so that the combination takes on a saucy consistency and just barely covers the duck. Increase heat to high and bring just to a boil. Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook until the meat is almost falling off the bone, about 90 minutes.

Remove duck from pot and allow to cool slightly. Peel off skin, dice and reserve. Shred meat off bones and return to pot. Place pot on stove top over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add duck skin, sage, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Strew shredded duck over polenta, spoon over sauce, and top with a couple of sage leaves.

Serve in shallow soup bowls, paired with creamy polenta.

Polenta

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the milk, cream, stock, and thyme over medium high heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Discard thyme sprigs and garlic cloves. Reduce heat to low, slowly add the polenta and cook, stirring constantly, until creamy and thick, about 5-8 minutes. Gently stir in the parmigiano-reggiano.

Pourboire: the sauce and legs can be stored separately overnight in the refrigerator. The fat will rise to the top of the sauce and may be easily skimmed off when you are ready to heat it through the following day. You may even find this method preferable. Also, give strong consideration to serving the ragoût over delicate gnocchi.