Mercurial March in a Bowl

by Lucinda Hutson

Disaster struck on my birthday in late February one year. I’d taken a huge potted agave plant out of my greenhouse a few weeks too early, just when its once-in-a-lifetime flower stalk (called a quiote) had started to emerge (soon to shoot 15 feet into the sky!). I’d eagerly awaited this spectacle ever since bringing the small pup back from an agave field in Mexico—an offspring of a majestic blue agave, the plant from which tequila is made. Instead, a quirky late-winter ice storm froze and battered the beloved plant I’d tended for a decade. Sadly, I watched her formidable sword-like leaves and central core slowly melt into mush.

As an avid gardener, I’ve learned over the years to keep my tender plants protected until mid-March. After all, during this time of year we could garden sleeveless on Tuesday morning, and a Blue Norther could whip in that night. It’s a doggone mercurial month for sure—calling for a fire pit…or a fan. Yes, March is a trickster and a tease.

But it’s a glorious season in the garden for herbs that dislike our summer heat—such as fennel, dill, parsley and coriander (better known around here as cilantro)—herbs in the Umbelliferae family (with umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny flowers that burst into seeds). Their aromatic, feathery foliage make pretty garnishes, and their pungent flavor enlivens many dishes. Forays into the March garden also yield crunchy kale and rainbow- stemmed Swiss chard, spinach and verdant salad greens. The final hurrah for arugula draws near; a bite of the lobed leaves with their nutty, peppery, mustardy flavor will become too fiery when the cream-colored flowers bolt in warmer April. (However, I still sow seeds now for wild arugula, sometimes called “rustica” or “sylvetta.” Its more finely serrated leaves, trailing nature and yellow flowers set it apart—and it abides the heat better than other arugula.)Edible Johnny-jump-ups and pansies thrive in cooler weather, and herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, winter savory and oregano may be only briefly damaged by hard freezes and rebound quickly.

To accompany March’s bipolar personality, here’s a soup to serve either hot or cold. A Portuguese fisherman’s wife in Morro Bay—a fishing community along the central California coast—shared this recipe with me when I lived there after college. White cannellini beans, potatoes, spicy sausage and fennel bulb fresh from the garden flavor this rich and hearty soup. Splurge on a bottle of sherry to add a special touch, and serve the soup warm with rustic bread, or chilled and garnished with garlicky crostini or Parmesan crisps. A salad of orange segments, olives and red onion in a tangy, citrusy vinaigrette makes the perfect accompaniment. And don’t forget a bottle of vinho verde, the “green” (young) Portuguese wine with citrus and mineral notes and a bit of fizz.