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In Season: Spring Greens

By Linda Brandt Tanner

From Radiance Spring 1998

Moss, pistachio, viridian, spruce, forest, lichen, lime, celadon, chartreuse: all shades of green are present in this spring’s harvest. Nature wakes replenished after her long sleep and proudly gives us her utmost. All the edible shoots, pods, and leaves of newly growing things are finally ours to savor.

Shopping the Farmer’s Market

Going to the farmer’s market in these early weeks of spring, my husband and I are eager to see what’s popped up. The growers rose early this morning to harvest the best of their fresh vegetables and flower blooms. Each stall is filled with something tantalizing to see, smell, and touch. Tender scallions are thickly stacked alongside mounds of new spring garlic. Pale green baby leeks, mildly sweet right now, are placed next to crunchy green cabbages and the freshest of red and green lettuces. Small heads of bok choy and the white-stemmed Swiss chard with its glossy leaves are vegetables I cannot resist. Fresh peas and bundles of asparagus are piled high next to the lumpy, bumpy fava beans, which are mild and delicious when pureed into a fragrant spread.

Red and orange baby beets and an unusual red- and-white-striped beet are sold next to the mildly spicy French radishes. Slender string beans keep company with just-picked artichokes. Baby carrots so young they barely need peeling and pink and white new potatoes round out the colorful, multitextured display. We buy flowers, too: fragrant bouquets of yellow narcissus and pastel sweet peas. With our large tote bags filled, we leave satisfied and ready to explore the many fresh taste sensations of spring.

Shoots, Pods, and Leaves

The peas I’ve planted send out their first shoots to attach themselves to rough climbing poles and will travel to great heights in these next weeks. Here is an added bonus: these first tendrils can be harvested as pea sprouts. Popular in Asian cooking, they are sweetly crunchy when flash sautéed (briefly in a very hot pan) with garlic and sprinkled with toasted sesame oil. Look for them under the name pea shoots or pea sprouts in your market. Because they collapse a lot when cooked, it takes several hefty handfuls of fresh sprouts to yield about one and one-half cups of crunchy cooked shoots. Like bean or alfalfa sprouts, or even a head of lettuce, pea sprouts can sour quickly because of their high water content. Look for crispy shoots that have a clean, fresh smell.

Later, as the peas blossom and bloom, pick or purchase them at their most succulent. Once the peas inside the pods become too large, their natural sugar turns starchy. Or buy the sugar snap pea or its flatter cousin, the snow pea, and enjoy the sweet eating of pod and all.

I love peas in a main course rice dish that resembles risotto. Sauté three slices of diced bacon in a heavy-bottomed pot with a two-quart capacity. When the bacon is almost crispy, discard the grease. Add to the pan one chopped medium onion, one minced clove of garlic, and one tablespoon olive oil. Sauté until the onion is softly translucent, and then add one cup of rice to the pan. I use regular short-grain white or brown rice. Do not use instant rice. Stir the rice until all the grains are coated with the bacon, onion, garlic, and oil mixture. Add two and one-half cups of chicken or vegetable stock, stir, and bring it to a boil. Cover the pot and turn down the heat to a low simmer. Cook until the rice is tender, twenty-five to forty-five minutes, depending on the type of rice (brown rice takes longer to cook). Remove from the heat, and stir in one and one-half cups of peas. I use tiny fresh peas or frozen petite peas. Cover the pan and allow it to rest for five to ten minutes. Before serving, stir about three tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese into the rice, and dust it with freshly ground pepper. For a meatless version of this dish, substitute mushrooms sautéed in two tablespoons of oil for the bacon, and proceed with the recipe.

For a long while, I passed over fava beans at the market, convinced I wouldn’t like them. Their looks confused me. Fava beans look like lumpy, fat, shiny string beans. Expecting them to taste fibrous and woody, I ignored them. What a mistake I made! If you’ve had the same thoughts, trust me and try some. Fava beans grow as a small bean inside a larger bean inside a large, fleshy,padded pealike pod. Select pods that are green, unblemished, and firm to the touch. Because nature’s "packaging" is so excessive, shelled amounts can be misleading, so purchase about two pounds to end up with about one cup of shelled beans.

To shell: Slit the pod with your fingernail as you would to get at a fresh pea. Remove the pea-ike beans and blanch (cook in rapidly boiling water for one or two minutes) them. Drain and cool the blanched beans under cold running water. Break off the larger end of the bean with your fingernail, and pinch out the smaller, tender bean inside. This is the one you eat. If these beans are small enough, the precooking will have made them tender. If not, sauté them in butter or olive oil a few moments until they soften. Now they are ready to be added to a pasta dish, pureed into vegetable soup, tossed into a meat or vegetable stew, or pureed into a glorious spread.

Fava bean puree: This is outstanding when spread onto toasted crostini. Mash one cup of blanched and cooked fava beans with a fork. Add two or three roasted garlic cloves or one minced medium-size raw garlic clove, one-half teaspoon of minced fresh rosemary, some salt and pepper, and just enough extra-virgin olive oil to thin it out. Add a bit of lemon juice and stir, adding more olive oil or lemon juice until it becomes smooth and spreadable. Set aside to give the flavors a chance to mingle together while you make the crostini.

Crostini: Cut a peasant-style bread or a good baguette into half-inch slices on the diagonal. Very lightly brush the slices with olive oil. Place them on a cookie sheet, and bake in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, until they become lightly toasted and smell richly aromatic. When they come out of the oven, if you like, rub the toasted slices with the cut end of a raw clove of garlic. Then spread them with fava bean puree. Garnish each toast with a shave of aged Asiago or Parmesan cheese. Eat these as a snack or as an accompaniment to drinks or a bowl of hot soup. I’ve seen even kids love this one: there’s something irresistible about toasty, rich garlic bread and cheese!

Lettuce: I’ve planted heavy sowings of mixed salad bowl lettuces and begin to harvest them leaf by leaf when they are about four inches high. These lettuces are called "cut and come again." If you harvest them leaf by leaf, you are assured a successive crop that can last, depending on your climate, well into the first weeks of summer. I’ve planted a red oak leaf lettuce, a frilly frizze, a peppery arugula, and a sturdy, glossy-leafed rosette lettuce called mache. Dress these salads with a light lemon vinaigrette. A heavy dressing would be too much for these light spring greens.

Chard: Here in California, I can grow Swiss chard year round. I cut chard leaves to add to an egg frittata: I cut some more to snip into a vegetable soup. On another day, I toss a few of the smallest into a salad of romaine, apples, cheese, and nuts. Some say to cook the chopped stems separately from the greens. I don’t. I wash the chard in cool running water, shake off the excess water, stack the clean leaves, and then slice through the stack across the leaf, cutting the chard into ribbons (these ribbons are called a chiffonade). I sauté the chard quickly in a hot skillet with some olive oil. Like spinach, chard marries well with tastes such as bacon and garlic and the flavor of fresh lemon. For a brilliant-tasting side dish, so good with roast lamb or roast chicken, I sauté a bunch of chard in olive oil with shallots, garlic, salt, and lots of pepper. When it is just ready to serve, I squeeze on the juice of a lemon and garnish the dish with lemon slices.

Artichokes: Artichokes are one of California’s main crops, and we eat them here year round. Purchase artichokes in several sizes while they are so fresh that they squeak when you gently squeeze them in your hand. I call these "singin’ chokes."

A recent getaway with friends down the California coast found us one evening at a memorable farmer’s market set up at dusk down the main street of the town. We strolled from stall to stall under trees strung with tiny white twinkle lights and oohed and aahed at mound after mound of the freshest home-grown produce one could imagine. Among my purchases were six squeaky fresh artichokes. I wanted to surprise my friends with a recipe that had come to me in dreamy inspiration as I was putting the finishing touches on this very article. They loved my new creation. Now I present it to you.

Roasted Artichokes: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. For six chokes, mix in a bowl four large cloves of minced garlic, one teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or thyme, and salt and pepper. Add one-quarter to one-half cup olive oil, depending on how large the artichokes are. Mix and set the marinade aside.

To prepare an artichoke, lay it on its side and cut off the pointy, thorny tip, about one inch down. Trim the stem and snap back about two rows of the smallest purple-tinged leaves on the stem end. To do this, just pull the leaves back as you would a pop top on a soda can. Cut the artichoke in half from tip to stem end, and, with a spoon, gently scrape out the tiny purple-tinged inner leaves and the hairy choke. Leave the tender heart. Plunge the cut artichokes into a bowl of acidulated water (cold water to which you’ve added the juice of one or two lemons). Leave them there until you’ve finished prepping all the artichokes. Then drain and dry them. Next, use your hands to rub the garlic–oil mixture over all of each artichoke, including down inside the leaves. Lay the artichokes cut side down on a cookie sheet, and cover with foil.

Bake these in a 400-degree oven for thirty-five to forty minutes, and remove the foil. Turn each half over and baste with any remaining oil. Turn down the oven to 350 degrees, and return the artichokes to the oven to roast for another ten to fifteen minutes, uncovered. They will brown, some of the leaves will curl up, and the garlic will roast. Artichokes prepared this way will be heavenly delicious. This is no time to worry about manners. These chokes call for a dig-in-and-get-messy kind of eating. You’ll want to suck the roasted marinade from the leaves and savor the salty, garlicky goodness. These are best when sprinkled with kosher salt and eaten as a first course, a picnic snack, a middle-of-the-night refrigerator raid—whatever! You’ll love them.

Spring Soups

Garden Soup: Because spring is known for its erratic weather, a garden soup is especially welcoming. I start with a pot of my basic potato–leek soup and add whatever fresh vegetables or herbs attract my eye. I can choose to serve this soup chunky, or pureed with some milk or cream. Especially good in this soup base are chives, spring garlic, asparagus, spinach, sorrel, fava beans, and young carrots. Use whatever tempts you in the market.

Here’s how I do it:

Sauté two washed and sliced leeks, one chopped medium-size onion, and two minced cloves of garlic in about one tablespoon each of olive oil and butter. Gently sauté until the leeks and onion become soft and translucent. Don’t brown them. Deglaze the pan with a couple tablespoons of white wine and add four large new potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes. Add enough stock or water to just cover the vegetables. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the potatoes are fork tender. Add the washed, drained, and cut-up greens of your choosing to this, and cook for a few minutes until they soften. Take care, because overcooked greens will take on an unappetizing brassy color.

After a few minutes, remove the solids with a slotted spoon and place them into the bowl of a food processor or into a blender. Puree until smooth. Place the puree back into the pan with the broth, and correct the seasoning. If you have a hand-held immersion blender (a whirring blade on the end of a plastic wand; mine is made by Braun and was less than twenty dollars), use it here. If the soup’s consistency is too thick, thin it with some stock, water, milk, or cream and a drizzle of fresh lemon juice. Top with freshly cracked black pepper. Eat this soup piping hot with crusty bread.

Restorative Spring Soup: One chilly spring day this past year, my husband and I worked up a voracious appetite in the garden. We were cold, damp, and dirty, and yearning for something nourishing and hot for lunch. I quickly cooked up a pot of this soup from some of the vegetables I had purchased at the farmer’s market that morning. What a success! We immediately gave it the name you see in the title, and worked happily for another two hours. Some soup!

In a medium-size saucepan,sauté half an onion in one teaspoon of oil. Add two tablespoons of diced ham (optional) and one clove of garlic, minced. Shred about one cup of green cabbage, slice six brown mushrooms, and dice one raw peeled yam, and add these to the pot. Chop up about three tablespoons of cilantro, grate about one teaspoon of fresh ginger, slice two whole scallions, and add these also to the pot.

Cover the vegetables with approximately four cups of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender. For extra heat, drizzle a bit of Chinese hot chili oil into the pot just before serving. (As I ladled our soup into bowls, I added a handful of petite peas from the freezer to each dish. This helped cool the soup a bit so that we could indulge in the aromatic broth immediately.) Serve with a garnish of cilantro sprigs and a squeeze of fresh lime. If limes are not available, a dash of Chinese rice vinegar will do.

You can improvise with this simple hot-and-sour soup. Start by heating chicken stock and adding some of any of the preceding ingredients. Feel free to add a handful or two of fresh bean sprouts, some spinach leaves, a bit of cooked rice, or some cubed tofu or shredded chicken for added protein. For a more filling soup, toss in a few frozen pot stickers or wontons to cook along with the vegetables. Add a dash of toasted sesame oil (make sure it’s toasted, because there is a difference in taste), soy sauce, a squeeze of citrus, and a drop or two of hot chili oil. Yum!

Step out and cook with the new greens of spring! The essence of life as it begins is tender, tasty, and oh, so satisfying. ©

LINDA BRANDT TANNER is at work on The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. Their mission of this program is to create and sustain an organic garden that is wholly integrated into the school’s curriculum and lunch program. Students participate in all aspects of farming the garden as well as in preparing, serving, and eating the food so as to stimulate their senses and teach them the transformative values of community, responsibility, good nourishment, and good stewardship of the land.

 

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