Ideas for Spring Cooking
The arrival of new produce inspires new cooking ideas
For a cook, early spring can seem uninspiring. It's the end of the citrus season. Apples and pears look faded. And even in the best markets the row of romaine hearts in their cellophane bags can put anyone off salad. I finally am tired of all those slow-cooked meats that were so alluring in November. Instead I am craving vegetables that need barely more than a quick wash and I want color and bright flavors in everything I cook and eat.
But have hope! Spring is full of kitchen rewards and much of what's due in our grocers and greenmarkets is some of the most flavorful and satisfying food of the culinary year.
TheCityCook has already written about artichokes, ramps and mangoes. But there's much more to spring cooking. Here's what to look for in the weeks ahead and a few ideas for what to do with these precious ingredients:
- Strawberries: One of the first fruits to ripen, locally grown strawberries will start to appear in May and early June. Eat them sliced with just enough sugar to get the juices going. When I find a perfect local strawberry, I like mine best with a very mild, slightly sweet, creamy goat cheese called Chevrie (about $4.99 for a 5.3 oz. container, widely available). But you can also make a strawberry tart, dip them in sour cream and sprinkle with brown sugar, or drizzle with the best balsamic you can find.
- Rhubarb: A vegetable that's usually cooked like a fruit, rhubarb combines exquisitely with strawberries but on its own it is a bold, bright flavor that compliments pork, game, and with a little Chinese five-spice powder added, also salmon. Treat it as an ingredient for desserts (cook some with sugar until it reaches a jam-like consistency and use as a filling with fillo dough or puff pastry) or make a compote or a ketchup as a side to an entrée.
- Asparagus: We can buy it year-round but in the spring it's bountiful and the first local crops taste like summer. When you find asparagus that's locally grown and in season, this is when to simply steam it and serve with a slick of your best olive oil or sweet butter, plus a pinch of sea salt. Or purée it, adding a little best quality chicken stock, for asparagus soup.
- Apricots: Most of the year the only kind of apricot to eat is a dried one. The season for fresh apricots is very brief and once picked, the fruit is fragile. Here's the test for buying good ones: take each into you hand and smell it. It should have a honeyed, perfumed scent. If it doesn't, it won't have any flavor, either. You can buy apricots when still firm as they'll soften on your kitchen counter in a day or so. Eat them by hand, make an apricot tart (unsalted just-shelled pistachios are a perfect accent), or roast with a sprinkle of crushed almond cookies.
- Peas: These little green jewels can quickly turn to sugar so look for ones from the best produce grocer or greengrocer you know and eat them the day you buy them. While there are many recipes for peas (soups, purees, pasta dishes), in my opinion, a freshly picked, in-season pea should be shelled, quickly blanched, dabbed with great butter and a pinch of sea salt and eaten joyously. You can always make those recipes with frozen peas.
- Lettuce: At last we can make our salads with something other than romaine and bagged mesclun. Lettuce is at its best in spring and early summer and each type has its own flavor and texture. Buy different ones and try dressing them with a variation of your usual vinaigrette. For example, a salad of baby Boston lettuce, which has delicate leaves and flavor, is wonderful with a vinaigrette in which you've substituted a little of the olive oil with walnut oil (not all walnut oil, though, because it will be too heavy). Or a red leaf lettuce, matched with paper-thin sliced red onion and mushrooms and tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette. This is also the time to make recipes that use lettuce as a main ingredient, such as lettuce wraps where the leaves, instead of bread, hold chicken or vegetables.
There's more to discover including the first cherries, fava beans (yes, they're worth all that double-shelling trouble), local mushrooms like morels, local potatoes, and chives. Buy what looks beautiful and appetizing and then figure out what to do with them because the ingredients are always the place to start to cook.
Finally, buy some lilacs. Then you'll know that winter really is over.