May Day, May Day!

“May Day, May Day, outside frolics start today!” After years of hearing my late father-in-law’s ritual rhyme, I wake up every first of May with the lyric and visions of outdoor living skipping through my head.

It’s the signal to launch plans to fill our late spring evenings with dinner parties al fresco expressed in every imaginable way: Barefoot barbeques, tropical poolside fetes, intimate candlelit suppers or long tables of friends snaking under lantern-lit trees in the garden, road trips to friends farms, and picnics at Miller Theatre—any excuse to eat outside.

How can I resist? Houston’s late spring features afternoon showers that send the temperature down into the low seventies by evening, when sunset ushers in a soft breeze. Every vegetable we grow on the Gulf Coast is in full production by May (save broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and pumpkins) so menu planning is a breeze. If you’re not growing your own, our many Farmer’s Markets are overflowing with bounty. So visit Rice on Tuesdays, City Hall on Wednesdays, Eastside on Saturdays, Highland Village or Discovery Green on Sundays and stock up. Nothing taste better than just-picked summer squash and zucchini served raw or after a few minutes on the grill; tomatoes every way to Sunday-in salads, salsas, and soups; brilliantly red and gold roasted beets on nests of mesclun with a drizzle of olive oil; creamy eggplant tapenade on crisp homemade crostini; refreshingly cold cucumber soup with a hint of dill peaking through; the last of the spring peas glittering like emeralds in pasta primavera; our first glimpse of okra – tiny young ones left whole, rolled in cornmeal and toasted in the oven; pico de gallo prancing on the plate in shades of the Mexican flag, its sharp crunchy jalapeños punching through the perfumed cilantro; silky parsnip puree mashed into a just-picked russet potatoes; and sweet, sweet corn on the cob, simply kissed with steam. It’s enough to turn anyone into a vegetarian, but fish is so lovely and light, we choose Gulf Shrimp—or wild Red Snapper line caught in June—throw it on the grill and dress it with just a squeeze of Mexican lime.

Dessert has to be figs or peaches. We grow five kinds of figs in our area and neighborhood trees are laden with fruit through the summer. Peaches are a shorter season crop, usually spent by July, so we have to make the most of them during their short stay. Our family eats lots of raw fruit – grabbing it to snack on throughout the day. But I also love to turn the seasonal bounty into everything from ice cream to pies, cakes, shortcakes, butters, preserves, cookies, cobblers and crisps. Figs and peaches are both so naturally sweet, that I have learned to cut back drastically on the added sugar in the recipes I make (with no complaints, yet.) Baking provides lots of opportunities for the kids to help. Here’s a recipe for Saffron Fig Cake from my upcoming children’s cookbook, “Eat It! Food Adventures with Marco Polo.” Grab the younguns and head to the kitchen to experiment. The cake is just as good with peaches. Yum!

Saffron & Fig Cake

Reprinted from “Eat It! Food Adventures with Marco Polo,” by Gracie Cavnar


Serves 9-12


  • 1 teaspoon + ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened (divided)
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup almonds, finely ground
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ cup skim milk
  • ½ teaspoon saffron threads
  • ¾ cup honey
  • 3 large eggs
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • ¼ cup almonds, chopped
  • 1 pint of fresh figs, washed, dried and sliced lengthwise into quarters


  1. Collect and measure all of your ingredients to create a mise en place.
  2. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  3. Smear a thin coating of butter onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch square, glass baking dish. Set aside.
  4. In a small bowl, sift together all the dry ingredients: flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt, and set aside.
  5. In a small saucepan, combine the milk and saffron threads and cook over medium-low heat until it starts to simmer, then immediately remove. (This can also be done in a glass measuring cup in the microwave for 30 seconds set on high.)
  6. Allow the saffron to steep in the milk as it cools for about 15 minutes while you start Step Two. The milk will turn a rich yellow color.


  1. Add softened butter and the honey to a medium mixing bowl.
  2. Beat with electric mixer on high for about 3 minutes, until light and fluffy.
  3. Add the eggs to the bowl one at a time and beat well to incorporate each one before adding the next one.
  4. Add cooled milk and saffron, lemon zest and almond extract to the egg and butter mixture, beat on high for 2 minutes. Don’t worry if the batter looks curdled.
  5. With the mixer on the lowest speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ones and mix until everything is well blended. The batter will be thick.


  1. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a solid layer of chopped almonds.
  2. Arrange the figs on top of the almonds to completely cover the bottom. They can even be stacked on top of each other a little bit in order to use them all.
  3. Gently pour the batter over the figs and smooth out the top all the way to the edges of the pan.
  4. Bake in oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Serve warm or cooled off, with a dollop of plain yogurt.