While radishes may not be the first ingredient you think of when it comes to spring cooking, they are for me.
On my first trip to Italy, a trip filled with memory searing experiences, I tasted my first risotto. It was in Florence, at a small ristorante located alongside the Arno, about two bridges down from the Ponte Vecchio. The chef had spent a few years living in California and loved to guide Americans through his menu and convinced me to try a spring radish risotto. About thirty minutes later (every risotto was cooked to order; none of this half-cooked-then-finished-later risotto done by most U.S. restaurants) the waiter brought me a plate filled with almost soupy, pale pink rice. Its flavor combined the sweetness of butter and garlic with Parmesan's salt and the pepper of spring radishes. The pink, of course, was from the radishes' red skins. And the tender rice, combined with the crunchy cooked radish, was the chef's genius.
A few years later my now-husband and I were again traveling, this time to the Normandy region of France. We had rented a car to drive the coastal towns where the Battle of Normandy was fought and where nearly 900 years earlier, plans were laid for the Battle of Hastings depicted in the extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry. Today Normandy is home to some of the best apple groves and dairy farms in all of Europe, a kind of bucolic disconnect with the area's violent past; it is common to see cows roaming among the remains of concrete artillery pillboxes in the grass-covered hills over Omaha Beach.
We arrived in Bayeux just in time for lunch and spotted its weekly farmers' market underway in a parking lot not far from the Bayeux Tapestry Museum. Since we always traveled with basic picnic tools, we headed to the market with a corkscrew and a Swiss Army knife. We spread our lunch on the hood of our rented Peugeot, making sandwiches from pieces torn from a just-baked baguette, a smear of sweet butter (could any other butter taste so wonderful than one sold by a Normandy dairy farmer at his local market?), and white-tipped spring radishes that we had rinsed with bottled water. Dessert was a wedge of an apple tart cut crudely with the knife's small blade. No meal has ever tasted better.
I've long promised to try to make that pink risotto. I never have. I suspect I don't want to disrupt the remembrance of that dinner along the Arno with my then boyfriend, now dear husband.
But as for that radish sandwich -- it is a favorite that I crave every spring and summer. A baguette is perfect but radishes will stand up to any bread you like, including a whole grain. Spread the bread with good sweet butter, maybe an imported Irish or French butter because they usually have a higher butterfat content than those made in the U.S. For the radish, the slightly sweeter, elongated white-tipped radish is a great choice but these can be difficult to find, even at farmers' markets. So select round, red firm radishes that have a little waxy shine to their surface and minus any signs that they may have spent the last few weeks in a warehouse. Snip off the stems and roots, give a rinse, and each cut into thick slices. Arrange the slices -- be generous -- on the buttered bread and add a tiny pinch of your best salt (this is a time to use a precious fleur de sel if you have it).
Add a glass of cold, chalky Sancerre and it's a perfect lunch or first course of a spring dinner.
No matter where you live, you'll soon be seeing spring produce at your farmers' markets and grocers. Here are some of the first that will be arriving and a few suggestions for what to make with each.
- Asparagus: When local asparagus appears in the markets it's a sure sign that summer is on its way. A simple steaming is all that's needed to showcase its green flavor, adding just a little olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon or for a splurge, a drizzle of Hollandaise Sauce. Another way to cook is to roast the spears (in a single layer, with a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper at 375° F for about 20 to 30 minutes) until lightly caramelized. Or make Asparagus Soup that can be served hot or cold. See our recipe.
- Garlic Scapes: Once a near-weed that farmers would toss into the compost pile, garlic scapes are now market favorites. They have a faint garlic flavor and can be turned into a flavorful pesto for seafood or pasta. See our our recipes for Shrimp With Green Garlic Pesto and for Spaghetti With Roasted Asparagus and Garlic Scapes Pesto.
- Lettuce: The first lettuce that comes to our markets can be fragile and have a delicate flavor. So instead of combining spring lettuce with other salad ingredients as we've done all winter with romaine, I prefer to use local spring lettuce by itself, with just a drizzle of vinaigrette and maybe a few curls of Parmesan cheese. We've added a link to our recipe for basic vinaigrette.
- Peas: Just-picked peas have an exquisite sweet taste. If you can vouch for how long they've been out of the garden, it's best to cook them the day you buy them by simmering in lightly salted water and serve them simply with a little butter. Nothing else. But peas begin to quickly taste their age. The longer since they've been picked -- and I'm talking hours here, not days -- the more starchy their flavor (this is why I usually recommend frozen peas). If you have a bag of local peas and want to add them to a recipe instead of making them the main event, consider a Risotto Alla Primavera, adding fresh peas and chunks of asparagus to a simple .
- Ramps and Spring Onions: Ramps and spring onions are still new to many home cooks but they are among the best treats of the entire growing season. We've added a link to our article that will tell you more about them and how to cook with them.
- Rhubarb: Loved for its acidic flavor, rhubarb is a perfect partner to strawberries, which soon follow in the growing season. If you're not a pie maker or don't have time for baking, we've added a link below to a crumble alternative to strawberry-rhubarb pie that is by the talented English writer and cookbook author, Tamasin Day-Lewis in the May 2010 issue of Bon Appetit.
- Sorrel: Sorrel is a slightly sour green that some may mistake as a weed. Not so! It makes a refreshing addition to salads but I love it best in soup. I've never seen it sold at a grocers but it's a common spring and early summer find at farmers' and greenmarkets. Last year I made several batches of Sorrel Soup, freezing it in small containers to be a treat for lunch on a cold winter's day. This recipe can be made with or without cream but if you plan to freeze it, make it without.
- Spring Potatoes: With paper-thin skins, these need little more than a knob of butter (or drizzle of your best olive oil) and a rain of snipped chives. They're also wonderful in favorite potato salad. For an alternative to the classic mayo-based kind, try a French potato salad in which still-warm potatoes are drizzled with mustard vinaigrette (add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to your favorite vinaigrette dressing or use ours). Serve at room temperature.
- Watercress: Sometimes dismissed as an ingredient for tea sandwiches, this spicy green makes a big flavored salad or it can be the main ingredient in a simple sauce for fish and steamed vegetables. Watercress is at its peak from April through June when its flavor is at its best.