Spring Cooking

Spring Cooking

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.

Spring Cooking

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.

 

 

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AprilMayRampsAsparagusGarlic ScapesSorrelRadishes

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