Making the Most of Fresh Spring Produce
Spring can be unpredictable here in the Northeast. For example, yesterday the sun was out and I was walking around with just a coat and a light pair of gloves, enjoying the beautiful day. Today it’s chilly and overcast, and the wind is so crazy that I can hear things banging and snapping outside. Sometimes we even get a spring snowstorm, though that doesn’t seem to be on the radar this year, thank goodness!
In the midst of all these variables is one constant that makes the whole season worthwhile: spring produce! I touched briefly on the benefits of eating local in my post about farmers markets, and today it’s all about how to enjoy what you’ll find there (and in well-stocked grocery stores) this time of year.
Spring food is the ultimate mix of bright and earthy, with the predominant color being green. While trees are starting to bud and flowers are pushing their way out of the winter-ravaged soil, the tender shoots and leaves of the first spring foods are coming to fruition. It’s a time of fragrant herbs, bold mushrooms and seasonal salad mixes that announce the warm weather and hint at the summer to come.
So what will you find waiting for you when you venture out for your first post-winter foray into the upbeat atmosphere of the farmers market? These seven spring staples are just a taste of what the season has to offer.
What they are: These long, curly green stalks sprout out of hard-neck varieties of garlic and sometimes have tiny garlic cloves, or bulbils, at the bottom. Farmers remove the stalks to keep them from using up nutrients needed by the garlic bulbs.
How to select: Choose scapes that are firm and smooth with a bright green color.
How to use: Garlic scapes have a light garlic flavor that makes them suitable for any dish you’d use regular garlic or scallions in. They can be sauteed with lemon juice, steamed, stir fried or blanched and used in salads. Some people add them to scrambled eggs, so for a vegan version go ahead and toss a few in your tofu scramble! Check out Fine Cooking and Serious Eats for more ideas.
What they are: Fiddleheads are coiled top fronds of ostrich ferns. They only appear at the market in spring when ferns begin to send up shoots. Most of them are foraged, which is why they tend to be a little pricey.
How to select: Look for fiddleheads with only one or two inches of stem left attached. They should be tightly coiled and have a bright green color.
How to use: Fiddleheads have a green, grassy taste with a hint of nuttiness that’s been described as a cross between asparagus and spinach. They’re best used the day you buy them, but they can be stored in a lightly closed bag in the refrigerator if need be. Start Cooking has easy-to-follow cleaning and preparation instructions that are important to note since fiddleheads should always be cooked before eating. For a tasty vegan option, try Spicy Sweet Fiddlehead Chickpea Pasta from Healthy. Happy. Life.
What they are: One of the major nutritional powerhouses of the plant world, spring greens include a long list of vibrant leafy veggies like arugula, spinach, chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens, young kale, collards, bok choy and tat soy. About.com has a great guide to the most common varieties.
How to select: The greens you go for depend on the flavor profile you want. Arugula and mustard are tangy with a hint of spiciness. Dandelion is bitter while spinach and tat soy are sweet. Chard, kale and collards fall somewhere in between. Bok choy has a light flavor and more of a crunch thanks to its large edible stems. Whatever greens you reach for, make sure the color is bright and the edges are free of wilted or brown spots.
How to use: Loading up meals with leafy greens is a great way to clear out your system and brighten up after a long and dreary winter. Though the most obvious way to use any type of spring green is in salads, I have to say that one of my favorite things to do is break out Nava Atlas’ Wild About Greens and blow through as many recipes as possible. If you don’t have the book, check out her Veg Kitchen site for an informative post on all manner of leafy greens.
Other great green ideas:
- Make some Lemon Nettle Chickpea Pasta.
- Wrap sandwich fillings in large collard or lettuce leaves.
- Use arugula as a garnish the same way you would fresh herbs.
- Saute your favorite greens with garlic and mushrooms or garlic and lemon juice.
- Blend sweet greens into smoothies.
- Put greens on pizza!
- This extensive guide from Experience Life. (The recipes that aren’t vegan can easily be made so.)
What it is: A perennial vegetable described by World’s Healthiest Foods as “fleshy spears topped with bud-like compact heads.”
How to select: With asparagus, I recommend foregoing the stuff at the grocery store completely and getting it only from farmer’s markets or stores that stock fresh local produce. Asparagus just doesn’t taste the same after it’s been trucked halfway around the world and stuck in a water bath on a shelf for days. To find the tastiest asparagus, Serious Eats recommends looking for “firm, crisp stalks with tight, fully closed budding tips.”
How to use: Eat asparagus the same day you buy it if at all possible. Trim off the woody part at the bottom of the stem before cooking. My favorite way to eat asparagus is roasted in the oven with balsamic vinegar, a method detailed in the first Happy Herbivore cookbook, but Nava Atlas has a ton of amazing recipes as well.
What they are: Morels are a wild forage mushroom that generally grow between April and June. According to Field and Stream, morels like ash, aspen, elm and oak trees as well as sandy soils.
How to select: CAUTION! Never pick your own morels if you don’t know what you’re looking for. False morels and other wild mushrooms can be toxic. Identify morels at the market by looking for their characteristic pitted top (which actually kind of looks like a brain).
How to use: Morels are one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin D, making them a good addition to a vegan diet. Simple recipes are recommended to let the earthy, smoky taste of the mushrooms stand out. You can find them fresh or dried, but as with most foods, fresh is best for optimal flavor. Both Mushroom Appreciation and Fresh Morel have some basic ideas for enjoying this gourmet denizen of spring.
What they are: Also known as stinging nettles, this spring green is a combination between a leafy vegetable and an herb.
How to select: It’s possible to harvest wild nettles, but as with mushrooms you need to know what you’re looking for so that you harvest the correct plant (and always wear gloves!). When buying nettles at the market, look for a vibrant green color to get the most out of their amazing nutritional profile. They’re a fantastic source of vitamin K!
How to use: Nettles have an earthy flavor that’s best enjoyed in hearty dishes such as soup, pasta or stew where they’ll mix in with other ingredients and seasonings. Cooking them lightly removes the stings.
What they are: Spring herbs are a great way to liven up other spring foods — or anything else you feel like eating! You’ll find an abundance of different types in the spring including chives, cilantro, oregano, parsley, dill, sage, marjoram, thyme, mint, chervil, basil and lavender.
How to select: Just like leafy greens, you want herbs that are vibrant in color. They should also have a fresh, clean scent and be free of wilted, wet or brown spots. For the freshest herbs any time, try growing your own! Herbs are easy to grow both outdoors and indoors, so you can have your own little garden in the backyard or on the kitchen windowsill.
How to use: Add fresh herbs to recipes near the end of cooking time and stir to incorporate. If you’re using fresh in place of dried, use four times as much. Fresh herbs are also great garnishes for your leafy green salads. And if you’ve never had fresh basil on pizza, this is the year to try it!
So there you have it: seven tasty foods to enjoy as you scour the farmers market this spring. To keep following the seasons, visit the local food section of About.com or check out this detailed resource from USA Today.
What’s your favorite spring food to eat and how do you prepare it? Share in the comments!