“It’s finally spring! What should I be cooking and eating right now?”
It’s the first week in May, and farmers markets everywhere have a new lease on life. Greens are generally the first spring vegetable you can count on seeing, and they are absolutely bursting with vitality. Spinach and chard are tender and fresh-tasting, with a minerally edge; arugula and watercress are spicy, not hot; and dandelion greens have bite but no bitterness. This is also when you’ll find stinging nettles, miner’s lettuce (claytonia), chickweed, and other edible wild plants that make great additions to salads, soups, pestos, and fillings for stuffed pastas and omelets.
I’ve been especially interested in wild edibles for a few months now, ever since I met Tama Matsuoka Wong, forager and author of Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market. It’s refreshing to find a forager who isn’t ramped up for ramps this time of year. “We don’t need to chase after ramps and other native spring ephemerals by the hundreds of pounds, in order to remind ourselves that it is spring,” she wrote in a recent email. “Why don’t we look to some things that were brought to this country as culinary greens like garlic mustard, which is tender, delicious, and an invasive plant perfect for foraging? And chickweed, one of the seven treasures of spring in Japan, is a garden ‘weed’ here.”
One of my favorite wild edibles that’s at its best now is the stinging, or common, nettle, hated and feared by many a shorts-clad hiker for its many pain-inflicting hairs on leaves and stems. Handle the uncooked nettles with tongs, and before cooking them, first blanch them in boiling water for a minute or two to remove the stinging chemical compounds, part of the plant’s defense mechanism. Nettles are worth the bother: They contain significant amounts of protein, iron, and calcium, and are also rich in vitamins A, B, C, D, and K. Nettle broth—simultaneously wild-tasting and deeply comforting—is one of the world’s great spring tonics.
Right now, I’m eating my fill of all these young greens and getting impatient for locally grown asparagus—fresher than any found at the supermarket and thus higher in nutrients that include vitamins K, C, and a host of Bs, as well as folate, beta-carotene, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium.
How thick asparagus spears are, by the way, has nothing to do with their maturity. The factors that determine that include the age of the plants from which the spears were harvested (the younger the plant, the thinner the spear), variety, and sex. Female asparagus plants produce fewer, larger spears; males produce a greater number of medium to small spears. (I’d love to see Jon Stewart read that last sentence aloud, just once.)
Pencil-thin asparagus spears are chic, but the thicker spears are juicier and meatier, especially when tossed with olive oil, coarse salt, and fresh-ground pepper, and then roasted or grilled and spritzed with a little lemon juice.
Asparagus and spring greens can be enjoyed raw, of course—even stinging nettles, if you are the sort who might enter the annual Dorset Nettle Eating Competition, in Dorset, England. And both asparagus and greens are enhanced by the addition of quick-cooking spring onions, shallots, and garlic. These young bulbs, which have just been pulled out of the soil and look much like scallions or tiny leeks, help ground anything you cook right now completely in the season.
Below find easy methods for cooking up spring.
Spring greens: Wash the greens well and tear larger leaves into pieces if desired. Let them sit, still wet, in the colander while you heat a generous glug of extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add some chopped or sliced garlic and red-pepper flakes and cook until the garlic turns pale golden, about 30 seconds. If you like, add a couple of anchovy fillets and stir them around until they dissolve into the oil (this is a simple way to add some protein and omega-3s). Add the greens with the water still clinging, and don’t worry if they won’t all fit; cover the pan and let the greens steam and wilt. Once they shrink down, add the remaining greens, toss to combine, and cook until just tender. If they’re not quite done enough for you, add a little water to the pan, cover, and cook a few minutes longer. Serve as a side or tossed with pasta, freshly grated Parmigiano or crumbled fresh ricotta, and maybe some lightly toasted walnuts or pine nuts. Or spoon the greens over polenta, farro, or thick slices of toast and top with a fried egg.
Asparagus: Hold the asparagus tips down and rinse well under cold running water to remove any sand (trust me, it’s there, even if you can’t see it), snap off the woody ends, and peel the lower half of the stalks if desired. Lay the asparagus lengthwise in about an inch or so of water in a large skillet. Bring the water to a gentle boil and cook the asparagus until it is just barely tender; the tip of a knife inserted in a spear should meet a very slight resistance. Thin spears will probably be done in about five minutes; thicker spears will take a bit longer, but test them often for doneness. Drain the asparagus and spread on a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth). Serve warm or chilled.