March strides on, hot and cold, cold and hot. Do you remember an old book of Aesop's fables? Writing this, a memory comes back, the illustrated pages of a childhood tome falling open to a painting of a satyr and a traveller, who meet in some idyllic alpine meadow. The satyr invites the traveller to stay and dine with him, and the traveller blows on his hands to warm them before he comes into the satyr's hut. Later, at supper, the traveller blows on his soup to cool it...and the satyr throws him out of the house, saying that he refuses to host a man who blows hot and cold with the same breath. Anyway, March is like that, blowing hot and cold, and not entirely to be trusted. Is it time for jackets and scarves, or tank tops and shorts? The answer, lately, is both yes and no.
This week's recipe is also full of such contrasts, the pillowy clouds of fresh ricotta, the piquant bite of silky lime oil. If you are lucky enough to have access to homegrown limes, by all means, treat yourself to this dish. Somehow, a fresh off the tree lime is wildly different than a store bought fruit. Partly, this is because of the way consumers tend to expect a lime to be green, when many of them are actually a light yellow when fully ripe; the hard green limes in the grocery store are often picked underripe and sold before their full flavor has developed. There's something truly magical about fresh lime zest, and I hope you can find some, and take it into your senses. A ripe lime captures the tastes of March so well; a brisk bite, pebbled skin like cold yellow sun. Paradoxically, it's the time for milk as well, rich and white and soft and sweet. Here's another food whose nuances have been stripped by the ubiquity of grocery stores; milk is a seasonal food, that changes in composition over the season. Spring is a season of births for many dairy animals, and the first mother's milk is some of the most prized of the season. Cook it gently, as is called for in this recipe, and watch it turn into the softest drifts of pure white ricotta, a meal and a moment unto itself. Something humble is elevated in this recipe, which is so simple at heart. Even if the milk does not come from cows who have been exclusively fed on alpine wildflowers, even if the lime comes from the grocery store after all, this is a wonderful culinary exercise, in which the thing created is greater than the sum of its parts. It is nothing like ricotta from a plastic can in the refrigerated aisle; it is another experience entirely. Trust me. It's March, hot and cold, soft and sharp, and though my breath both warms and cools, depending how I use it, I am to be trusted when I give you this sincere recommendation.
Something that I learned to appreciate about that story (Aesop's tale, yes, I'm still thinking about it) later in life was the way it turned the usual tropes of hero and villain upside down. In so many fairy tales, a satyr, also sometimes called a faun, represents the pagan wild; untamed sexual urges, debauchery, drunkenness, music and merriment; impulses and practices that the early church exemplified as pure devilry. Devils, like the most famous satyr Pan himself, were depicted with horns and cloven feet, piping sultry tunes on breathy flutes, a template for the impious impulse, an archetype to project fear and mistrust onto. Yet in Aesop's tale, which predates Christianity, it's the satyr who mistrusts the traveller, the satyr who is the voice of morality and judgement, insisting on consistency and honesty from the traveller he sees as duplicitous. The traveller blows hot and cold from the same mouth, a metaphor for someone who is unreliable and inconsistent, whose deeds and words contradict each other; he is not to be trusted in this tale. Or are we meant to look down upon the satyr, who does not understand the larger truths, that sometimes a thing as mutable as breath can be both hot and cold, depending on the context? That seems like a truth that a wild faun would understand implicitly, wooing the shepherdesses and milkmaids, promising nothing but a good time... I don't know what to make of this, really, or what it has to do with ricotta. Sometimes in March, the wind blows hot and cold at once, and it is hard to tell which breath is the one to trust. Scarves or short sleeves? Simplicity or complexity? Yes, both, answers March, and breaths out another complex riddle of a day.
By Jessica Tunis