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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Gratin Dauphinois Revived

March 21, 2011

Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.
~Victor Hugo

They say spring sprang yesterday.

Equinox is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The vernal equinox officially occurs when the center of the sun crosses the equator. But, be not dissuaded by the tale that on the vernal equinox the length of day is exactly equal to the length of night. Daytime to nighttime equality actually falls before the vernal equinox and likewise after the autumnal equinox.

For most venues on earth, there are two distinct days per year when the length of day and night are closest to being equal; those days are referred to as equiluxes, not to be confused with equinoxes. In a nutshell, equinoxes are points in time, but equiluxes are full days. An equinox happens each year at two precise moments in time—rather than two whole days—when there is a location on the earth’s equator and the center of the sun is observed vertically overhead.

To complicate matters, the earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight when approaching the horizon, so the sun appears to be above the horizon a few minutes earlier than actuality. Therefore, on the vernal equinox, the daylight hours are actually longer than the length of time between when the sun crosses the horizon at dawn and when the sun crosses the horizon at sunset. Those factors all combine to make the day of the equinox not the day when we have twelve hours each of light and darkness.

The vernal equinox also brings spring leeks to mind. Always, maybe too often, thinking food. Those sweet, green and white alliums that are planted in the fall and left in the frigid soil until the first thaw. Because farmers usually mound soil and mulch over leeks to protect them against cold temperatures, they tend to be grittier than their summer cousins. So, take care to clean them assiduously. Trim the roots, peel away the translucent outer layers and slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Wash well under cold running water.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH MUSHROOMS & LEEKS

1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter, unsalted

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, then sliced thinly crosswise
8 oz crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 T unsalted butter, divided
2 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced

2+ C grated gruyère cheese
1+ C heavy cream

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Melt butter 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced leeks, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and golden, about 5-7 minutes. Set leeks aside in a bowl. Wipe skillet with a paper towel.

Melt an additional 2 tablespoons butter in the same skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced mushrooms, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are tender, about 8 minutes. Set mushrooms aside in a bowl.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin/baking dish with a crushed garlic clove, and then lightly butter the dish with the end of a stick of butter. Arrange one half of the sliced potatoes slightly overlapped in a single layer. Strew cooked leeks and mushrooms over the potatoes. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of potatoes with cheese, cream and season again with salt and pepper. Lightly grate some fresh nutmeg on the top layer to finish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until crisp and golden, about 1 hour. Should the top begin to brown too rapidly, simply cover with aluminum foil. Remove from oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes, and then serve.