The onset of spring brings a slew of accompanying pleasures. Some of these pleasures, the best of them really, also happen to be the most simple – beautiful weather and the start of the baseball season, just to name two. But for me, there's one simple pleasure surrounding spring that outshines the rest. Believe it or not, I'm talking about vegetables.
A Long, Cold Winter
Wintertime is predominantly about "root" vegetables: potatoes, parsnips, turnips, onions, and the like. The major reason for this is the weather. Typically, it's so darn cold that the only non-greenhouse veggies worth consuming are the ones grown underground. Misshapen and dug from the dirt, these various roots, tubers, and bulbs certainly don't start off as the prettiest vegetables in the garden.
Winter veggies also tend to be inexpensive, and it's primarily due to their lower ranking on the vegetable totem pole. Despite their eventual deliciousness, they usually require additional labor in order to bring out their best. Whether you're peeling or grating, chopping or mashing, few winter veggies are eaten as is, let alone raw.
The extra labor and longer cooking times associated with winter vegetables seem to have pigeonholed their use within the culinary world. They repeatedly pop up in the same types of dishes, with soups and stews being the most common. Meals such as these tend to cook longer, as do their vegetable components.
So, winter is finally over, and it's not a moment too soon. Not only are we sick of the cold weather, we're tired of eating the same vegetables every day. Those craggy-looking winter veggies may have served their purpose, but it's definitely time for a change.
Spring Has Sprung
It's like comparing apples to oranges when juxtaposing winter vegetables with those yielded in the spring. Where winter vegetables are craggy and unyielding, spring veggies are pretty and delicate. Often termed "aromatics", winter vegetables usually serve as the backbone of a dish's flavor. Spring vegetables, on the other hand, are lighter and sweeter in taste, making them much more suited as a side dish or garnish.
Regarding their preparation, many spring veggies can actually be served raw. At the same time, I believe the best recipes for said veggies are typically basic ones, utilizing minimal cooking times and ingredients. This should make any weekday meal preparers out there extremely happy.
So here's the plan. I'm using the remainder of this article to focus on a few of my favorite spring veggies. I'll not only tell you what to look for when buying these vegetables, but I'll also give you a minimalist, yet delicious preparation suggestion for each. Here we go.
With peak seasons in both the spring and fall, artichokes are a vegetable that can be enjoyed throughout the better part of the year. The best spring artichokes tend to be brighter green in color than their fall counterparts. You want to look for tight, unblemished leaves with no wrinkling. The artichoke should feel heavy for its size.
Although it's not one of the "prettier" spring vegetables, the artichoke may be one of the tastiest. The following is one of my absolute favorite artichoke preparations.
Grilled Artichokes with Easy Aioli Dipping Sauce (serves 2 to 4)
- 2 large artichokes
- Large pot of boiling water
- 1 lemon, split in half crosswise
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil
For the Dipping Sauce:
Using kitchen shears, cut the pointed ends off of all the artichoke's leaves. Using a pairing knife, peal the rough outer skin from the artichoke's stem. Add a handful of kosher salt and both lemon halves to the pot of boiling water. Boil artichokes for roughly 20 minutes or until you are just able to pull out the leaves. Remove artichokes from pot, allowing them to cool completely while draining upside down.
- 1 C real mayonnaise
- 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 1/4 C of any fresh herb, finely chopped (parsley, mint, and dill all work well)
- 1 Tbsp capers
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl combine all the ingredients for the dipping sauce and store in the refrigerator. Once the artichokes have cooled, split them in half lengthwise, using a sharp knife. Then, using either a spoon or a pairing knife, scrape out the fibrous choke. Lightly brush the cut sides with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Heat either a grill or a grill pan until quite hot. Place artichokes cut-side down and grill until evenly charred. Turn artichokes over and grill for a few additional minutes. Serve with dipping sauce.
It's important to note that since we removed the choke, the entire artichoke heart and stem are edible.
Although hothouse asparagus is available year-round in many areas, the months between February and June are when traditional asparagus is at its best. When picking out asparagus, you want to look for bright green stems and tight, unblemished tips. I prefer using medium-sized asparagus, due to its superior texture and more even cooking times. I would characterize "medium-sized" asparagus as being roughly 1/2 inch in diameter at the base.
One of my favorite ways to prepare asparagus is to roast it in the oven. I guarantee you're going to love it. (video coming soon!)
Oven-Roasted Asparagus (serves 2 to 4)
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Trim one pound of asparagus (or more) by cutting off the bottom inch and a half. Place the vegetables inside a glass or ceramic baking dish, or on top of a cookie sheet lined with foil. Drizzle with 2 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and season liberally with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. If desired, top with 1 Tbsp finely minced fresh garlic. Toss well to combine.
Place asparagus in oven and roast for 10 minutes. Remove asparagus from oven and toss again. Return to oven and roast for an additional 8 to 10 minutes or until the tips are slightly charred and asparagus is cooked through. Serve.
There is probably no other vegetable season that excites its purists quite like sweet corn season. A member of the grass family, there are many varieties of corn, and all of them are indigenous to North America.
When choosing corn, look for bright green husks with silks that are light in color and moist but not soggy. When pressing on the husks, you should be able to feel firm, individual kernels.
From boiling and steaming to grilling and roasting, there are many methods for cooking corn. No matter which one I utilize, I have two steadfast rules. First, whenever possible I buy my corn on the day I intend to cook it. As soon as corn is picked from the stalk, it begins converting its sugars to starch. Ergo, the fresher the corn, the sweeter it's going to be. Farmers' markets and roadside vegetable stands in rural areas are typically reliable for selling freshly-picked corn.
Rule number two has to do with cooking time. Regardless of what cooking method I'm using, the goal is to cook the corn for as short a time as possible. Overcooking corn will transform the corn's delicate sugars into gummy starch. Once you've had perfectly cooked sweet corn, you will never go back.
One of my favorite methods of cooking corn is boiling it on the cob. It's quick, easy, and yields some of the truest corn flavor you will ever taste. Here's my method:
Boiled Corn on the Cob
Leave both the husks and silks intact on the cob. This will add a tremendous amount of flavor to your finished product. Place ears of corn in a large pot, and cover with cold water. Place pot on stove and turn heat on high. When the water comes to a rapid boil, the corn is done. Peel back the husks, top with sweet butter and kosher salt, and serve. You can hold the un-husked corn in the water (off the heat) for 5-10 minutes to keep warm.
For those of you who've never heard the term, "English Peas", they are nothing more than your regular, garden-variety green pea. When shopping for English peas, you'll want to choose plump, unblemished, bright green pods. The peas inside should be shiny, crunchy, and sweet. As with corn, peas quickly convert sugar to starch, so the fresher they are the better they'll taste.
Green peas are a vegetable with many uses, but when it comes to sweet spring peas, there may be no better preparation than a simple blanching. This method brings out their true sweetness without stepping on the overall flavor. The best part is it couldn't be simpler. Here is the method utilized by one of my heroes, the late chef, Julia Child.
Julia Child's Green Peas (serves 6)
Place shelled peas and the remaining ingredients in a 3-quart saucepan. Using your hands, massage the butter and seasonings into the peas until all are well-coated. Add just enough cold water to the saucepan to reach the top of the peas. Cover, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Simmer peas for 6 minutes. Lift lid and check peas for doneness and seasoning. Add a touch more salt or sugar if necessary. If water has boiled off and peas are not quite tender, add a touch more water and continue to simmer. If peas are tender but the water hasn't boiled off, uncover and simmer until only a teaspoon or so of liquid remains. Serve.
- 3 lbs. green peas in the pod (yields 3 cups when shelled)
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter (room temperature)
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
So, there you have it; four of my favorite spring vegetables, and four simple preparations designed to bring out the true flavor of each. I can hardly wait for next spring when I can tell you about four more.