Jane Says: It’s Time to Eat Spring Vegetables
“What are some good ways to cook all of the spring vegetables that are in season right now?”
Here in New York, a hard, long winter has put farmers and their growing season weeks behind schedule, but there’s reason to live. Last week brought the first local asparagus to my neck of the woods, and I can’t begin to tell you how delicious it was cooked until just tender and dragged through melted butter. My husband and I split a huge bundle and called it dinner.
Because spring is the most ephemeral of seasons—blink and you’ll miss ramps or nettles—you’ll want to pounce on whatever delicacy strikes your fancy and get cracking in the kitchen. Here are five of my all-time-favorite spring vegetables and thoughts on what to do with them.
To the uninitiated, an artichoke isn’t very user-friendly. It has thorns. Its leaves, or bracts, are armor-like in appearance, and the clump of fuzzy purplish leaves in the center is called a choke for good reason. But the haunting, sweet flavor and meaty texture of this vegetable are legendary, and this is peak season. The size of an artichoke (botanically, the unopened flower bud of a type of giant thistle) depends on where it is on the plant. The one at the top of the central stem, the main flower bud, can be very large. Once those are harvested, growers force smaller buds to form on lateral shoots; those are so-called baby artichokes, and it’s usually not necessary to remove the choke. The base and tender yellow leaves of baby artichokes are what’s sold as artichoke hearts. Choose artichokes that squeak when you squeeze them gently. Sometimes the outer leaves are blemished from frost, but no worries—if anything, they’ll taste sweeter for it.
Steaming is the traditional way to cook whole artichokes you want to eat leaf by leaf with garlicky mayonnaise or melted butter, vinaigrette, or another dipping sauce. To prep artichokes for steaming, cut off the stem (so that the base will sit evenly on a plate) and then the top half inch of the artichoke with a serrated knife. Use kitchen shears to snip off a half inch from the remaining leaf tips, and rub the cut leaves with a lemon half to prevent them from browning. Separate the leaves slightly, and pull out the purple leaves from the center and enough yellow leaves to expose the choke; scoop out the choke with a melon baller and squeeze some lemon juice into the cavity. I’ve gotten used to steaming artichokes in a pressure cooker (it takes about 10 minutes at high pressure), but you can also put the trimmed artichokes, tops down, on a rack over simmering water (or a combination of water and dry white wine), cover, and cook until a leaf comes out easily when pulled, 30 to 50 minutes, depending on size.
If you want to sauté or roast artichokes (whether large or baby), first snap off the tough outer leaves, stopping when you reach those that are yellowish green and tender. Prep the stem, top, and leaves as above. Cut the trimmed artichoke lengthwise into quarters and cut out the choke. (Work with one artichoke at a time and, as trimmed, drop in a bowl of water in which you’ve squeezed the juice of a lemon. Pat dry just before cooking.) To roast, leave the artichokes in quarters and toss in olive oil to coat lightly. Arrange in a baking dish, add a little water in the bottom of the dish, and pop into a 400° F oven until golden and crisp in places. Serve with any of the sauces mentioned above or simply with a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. To sauté, cut into thinner slices and cook in olive oil over moderately high heat until crisp and golden. A little fresh lemon juice and salt are all you need.
This vegetable (as well as nettles and a few other spring greens) and some easy, virtually foolproof cooking techniques were the subject of a 2013 column. This year, I’ve been craving it with eggs, either in a frittata or as a Asparagus Mimosa.
Wild dandelion greens have intense flavor, true, but I have to say I prefer them cultivated unless I know the grass they’ve been foraged from is pesticide-free. When shopping, choose greens with as few buds as possible; once the plant has flowered, the leaves turn from bracing to harsh. For my money, you can’t beat a warm bacon dressing on dandelion greens. For a pound of the greens (cut them crosswise into pieces for manageable forkfuls), you’ll want to cook about five pieces of bacon until golden and crisp. Transfer the bacon to a cutting board, reserving the fat in the skillet, and chop the bacon. Whisk together some finely chopped spring shallots or spring onions with about 1½ tablespoons cider vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in a few tablespoons of hot bacon fat. Toss the greens with enough warm dressing to coat, sprinkle with bacon, and serve right away.
The first sparkling-fresh garden peas in the pod at your local farmers market are a splurge that’s worth every penny. Buy them in the cool of the morning, and choose plump bright-green pods. Split open a pod—the peas should be small and tender enough to eat out of hand. Refrigerate them as soon as you get home, and shell and cook them that evening, perhaps with lettuce, which has a more complex sweetness. The combination is a classic French one. If you can’t get your hands on tender baby fresh peas, choose frozen baby peas (I like Birds Eye) over “fresh” supermarket peas in the pod, which are usually starchy and insipid.
To quick-braise enough peas and lettuce to serve four, you’ll need 4 cups shelled fresh young garden peas (that’s about 4 pounds in the pod) and 4 cups roughly chopped lettuce leaves (when cooked, butterhead varieties such as Bibb have great body, but romaine works well too).
Melt about half a stick of unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add a good handful of thinly sliced spring onion or scallion and cook over medium heat until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add about a half cup water and bring to a boil. Stir in the peas, then the lettuce. Cover the pan and return the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, still covered, about 5 minutes, or until the peas are tender and the lettuce is lush and succulent. Finish with salt, freshly ground pepper, and, if you’re in a devil-may-care mood, a little more butter, and eat while hot.
The beauty of this combination lies in its utter simplicity, but embellishment is not a crime. You might think of tossing some diced pancetta into the pan along with the onion, for instance, or, after you get the peas and lettuce working, adding slices of a leftover boiled potato. A sprig of fresh thyme, mint, or parsley wouldn’t go amiss, or, at the end of cooking, a little fresh lemon zest or shredded basil. It’s really very hard to go wrong.
The fava bean looks like a brawnier version of a lima or other shell bean, but those belong to a New World genus of the legume family. The fava is from the Old World; it’s been a European and Middle Eastern staple for millennia. Driven in large part by the demands of chefs, the fresh fava has become a seasonal draw at farmers markets here in the U.S., but it’s not a newcomer; it was popular in kitchen gardens from colonial times to the 1840s, when it gradually fell out of fashion.
Favas must be popped out of their pods, and unless the beans are very small, after cooking, they must also be divested of their tight-fitting second skin, which turns bitter as the favas mature. That extra step is no big deal; simply slit the skin with a fingernail and slip it off. I like to blanch the larger-shelled beans in boiling water for a couple of minutes; after draining and peeling, I put them in a salad with the pale, tender interior leaves from a head of escarole and some watercress. Asparagus, cooked until barely tender, would be a nice addition, or herbs such as parsley and mint. As far as dressing goes, I stick with an uncomplicated mix of extra-virgin olive oil, sherry vinegar, maybe a squeeze of lemon juice for freshness, and salt and pepper. How could shavings of Parm or Pecorino Romano be bad?
As for the smallest beans, they are so tender you can eat them raw. For a first course that combines glamour with down-home appeal, put a bowl of those small pods right on the table, so everyone can shell and dress the beans with a drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of coarse sea salt. Round things out with some mild, creamy fresh goat cheese and a few slices of cured sausage, for instance, and segue to cold leftover roast chicken and some greens. Everyone around the table will be very happy.