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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Spring Has Sprung

April 21, 2010

Spring is the beginning of food season.

Everything is coming alive. Winter is past, the first crops are coming out of the ground, and everything begins to taste earthy and vibrant.

Spring brings fresh morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns. In spring, our environment begins to turn green, and our foods begin to turn green. Fresh asparagus is the star. Everything is new and alive.

In the fall it’s all about squashes. In the winter, pumpkins and sweet potatoes rule the day. I am not a fan of pumpkin. I have nothing against sweet potatoes, but I think it’s the fact that there are limited “fresh” choices in the winter that remind us of the countless options in spring and summer.

The best thing winter has going for it is the oyster harvest. The fresh oysters we received this past winter were some of the best we’ve seen since Hurricane Katrina altered the Gulf Coast seafood industry.

For me, lamb and soft-shell crabs are the kings of spring. I love lamb in all forms. It’s available year round, but it’s best in spring.

The soft-shells have just started arriving in the last few weeks. I hesitate to write about their arrival, because two years ago we received two shipments of live soft-shell crabs in April and I wrote in this column that the soft-shell season had begun. Unfortunately, it ended as quickly as it started. We went on a three-month drought from live soft-shells and couldn’t get any more until September. My chefs said I jinxed us; our servers were upset because they were the ones who had to bear the wrath of customers who were told that the season had begun. I was upset because I like eating soft-shell crab.

In our part of the country crawfish season brings spring. Crawfish take us outdoors. To me, they taste like the out of doors. Over a year ago, we took crawfish off of the menu in our casual concept. The seasonal availability wasn’t there, the frozen product was sub-par, and we didn’t want to serve imported Chinese crawfish. Therefore, we bit the bullet, endured the scorn of a few customers, and removed them from the menu entirely. Trust me, this is not an easy thing to do in a Creole-Cajun-themed restaurant.

We made the hard choice, and it was the right choice. This week we rolled out a special crawfish menu that will run as long as the season. It’s filled with items that feature fresh, locally harvested, Louisiana crawfish. That’s something, that in our 23 years we have never done before, and it’s something we never thought to do when crawfish was a full-time player on the menu.

In the upcoming early days of summer, shrimp season will begin. The cobia will be running, and the bounty from the Gulf will remind us, once again, how lucky we are to live in this part of the country.

As summer progresses the gardens will begin to make, and we will be awash in tomatoes, corn, and peaches. But for now, we will enjoy spring and everything it brings.

The season of eating has begun.

Pesto Pasta with Roasted Portobello Mushroom and Asparagus

For the Portobellos:

1 cup Creamy Balsamic Dressing (or substitute a store bought balsamic vinaigrette)
2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tsp creole mustard
1 tsp hot sauce
2 tsp creole seasoning
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

5-6 fresh Portobello mushrooms, stems and gills removed*

Combine the first 8 ingredients in a mixing bowl. Dip each Portobello mushroom in the mixture to coat them completely. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

After the mushroom have marinated, place them on a baking sheet with the top side down. Cover the baking sheet completely with aluminum foil and bake for 7 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 more minutes. Allow the mushrooms to cool, then cut them into 3/4 inch wide strips.

* the gills are on the under side of the mushroom and become tough and bitter when cooked. They are easily removed by gently scraping the underside of the mushroom with a teaspoon.

For the asparagus

1 lbs Asparagus, fresh
2 Tbl Olive oil
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet lined with wax paper. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the almonds over the asparagus.


3 cups loosely packed basil leaves, washed and dried very well
1/3 cup pinenuts
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 tsp kosher salt1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a food processor, combine the basil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic and salt and puree. With the processor still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Remove the lid and scrape down the sides of the processor to make sure there are no large pieces of basil, puree for another 30-40 seconds. Use immediately or refrigerate covered with plastic for up to 4 days. The plastic wrap should be placed directly on the surface of the pesto to prevent discoloration. Pesto make also be frozen in an airtight container and held for one month.

For the pasta

1 pound Bowtie pasta

2 Tbl unsalted butter
1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
3/4 cup fresh pesto
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tspfresh ground pepper
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, drain and rinse with hot water.

In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Place the cooked mushrooms in the pan and heat for 3-4 minutes. Add in the broth, pesto, salt and pepper. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and mix well so that the pasta is evenly coated with the pesto.

Divide the pasta onto serving dishes, and sprinkle the pasta with the shredded Parmesan cheese.

Divide the asparagus among the serving dishes and serve immediately.

Creamy Balsamic Dressing

3 egg yolks
2 eggs
1/2 tsp dry mustard
2 Tbl garlic, minced
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tsp garlic salt
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2 Tbl parsley, chopped
2 tsp oregano, dried
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup Ranch dressing, prepared
1 cup Canola oil
1 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor except ranch dressing and Canola oil. Mix well. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in ranch dressing and then cottonseed oil. Refrigerate until ready to use. This dressing will hold 1 week refrigerated.

Yield: 3 cups

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