Eat Good Food

In Season: Spring Produce

spring produce

There’s nothing more welcoming than the arrival of the first spring produce: nettles and dandelion greens gathered from the wild, earthy morels, slender spears of asparagus, green garlic, fresh peas, fava beans, and piles of bright red rhubarb.

In this, the first of our series of seasonal produce guides, you’ll find tips for buying, storing, and preparing the best of spring’s bounty. We’ll start off with a delicious rhubarb cordial, then continue throughout the spring to add recipes, everything from nettle soup to fried baby artichokes to fava bean and green garlic ragout to risotto with asparagus, peas, and morels.

We wish you good cooking and happy eating!

Artichokes are actually the edible, immature flowers of a thistle, which the Italians have expertly cultivated since Roman times. Generally conical or round, artichokes range from green to greenish-violet to purple in color. Both the petal bases and hearts are edible, and while they require some work to prep, their nutty flavor and meaty texture is worth the effort.

They can be prepared in a great many ways, both raw and cooked, depending on their size and maturity. Steamed whole, artichokes need little more than a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of butter, or a bowl of aioli to dip; trimmed and stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs à la Provençal, they make a light entrée.

Artichoke’s prized hearts are delicious batter-fried, marinated for a salad, or quartered and browned to use in a pasta. Young artichokes that have not developed their prickly choke take less prep, and can be grilled, fried, or stewed whole, or sliced very thin and tossed, raw, with olive oil, lemon, and shavings of Parmesan.

How To Buy
An artichoke should be harvested before the flower heads start to open, when they’re still immature. Look for artichokes that are unblemished, crisp and dense, with tightly closed leaves, and vibrant color. Check the stem ends to see if the cut is recent, and buy artichokes as fresh as you can.

How To Store
Store artichokes loose in the crisper drawer with humidity on high to slow wilting; don’t wash or peel before storing and do not place in a sealed plastic bag; this will promote rot. Uncooked artichokes are best consumed a day or two after they’re bought, while cooked artichokes will keep for up to a week if refrigerated in an airtight container.

How To Prepare
To prepare artichokes, start by pulling off any small leaves, technically called bracts, attached to the base, until you get down to the lighter yellow leaves. Using a serrated knife, cut crosswise through the top third or so, where the leaves begin to taper in toward the top and trim the very bottom of the stem. Rub trimmed surfaces with fresh lemon to prevent discoloration; then the vegetable is ready to cook.

Removing the hairy, inedible choke from a raw artichoke can be a chore; it’s much easier to do after the artichoke has been cooked, when the choke can be easily spooned out. However some recipes call for removing the choke before cooking. To do this, gently spread apart the trimmed leaves, pull out and discard the pale, thorny, innermost leaves, then scrape out the choke with a spoon and discard it. Drop into acidulated water.

Asparagus spears are the tender young shoots of the Eurasian perennial Asparagus officinalis, which grows into a four-foot-tall, fern-like plant with vivid red berries. In our Northern California area, asparagus starts pushing up out of the ground in very early spring and is harvested when at six to 12 inches tall.

In the U.S., most of the crop is green or purple, whereas in Europe most asparagus is white due to the fashion of blanching, a growing technique that keeps the shoots underground, preventing everything but the tips from turning green or purple.

Early asparagus, usually on the thin side, are suited to sautés and sauces or a simple pan-sear with salt and pepper. Thicker, juicier spears come later in the season and are often served whole — either steamed, boiled, or grilled until crisp-tender.

How To Buy
Like many vegetables, asparagus begins to lose its sweetness as soon as it’s cut, so inspect the ends; if they are dried out, they are not freshly cut. Look for newly harvested spears with compact heads and firm, unwrinkled stalks. Thicker asparagus resulting from a later harvest can be bitter and woody. Wrinkly, limp stalks mean the asparagus has been sitting on the shelf for too long.

How To Store
Asparagus is best eaten as soon as possible after harvesting, but to store it, treat it like a bouquet of fresh flowers: put the freshly cut stalks into warm water with the tips up and store in the refrigerator. Since asparagus has a higher respiration rate (meaning shorter shelf life) than other vegetables, avoid storing it next to ethylene gas-releasing fruits like apples, apricots, melons, and figs.

How To Prepare
To prepare asparagus for cooking, hold each spear with both hands and snap it. It will naturally break at its most tender point. Save the ends as they can be used to flavor soups or stocks. If you have asparagus that is thicker than your pinkie finger, peel the stalk with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to remove the fibrous skin.

Dandelion Greens
The common dandelion belongs to one of the largest plant families – Asteraceae – which include more than 22,000 species, of which daisies and thistles are also members. All parts of the plant are edible, though the leaves and the flowers are the most delicious. Dandelion greens are high in iron, calcium, vitamins A, C, K, and B2 among other vitamins and minerals, and contain more protein and iron than spinach.

How To Buy or Forage
Look for greens with no wilted, yellow, or brown spots on them, preferably the younger, paler leaves. If you are foraging, the best time to harvest wild dandelion greens is before they flower, after which the leaves become markedly more bitter. If you do forage, make sure to do so in an area that is not sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.

How To Store
After gathering your dandelion greens, gently rinse, pat dry, and store wrapped in eco-friendly plastic bags in your crisper drawer for 2-3 days.

How To Prepare
Dandelion greens are eaten both raw and cooked, while dandelion flowers can be used for garnish. When young they add a pleasant bitterness, rather like radicchio, to green salads, and can be chopped up and mixed into such cold grain salads as farro or wild rice. A great complement to this bitter green is to sauté it with olive oil, and lots of garlic. For a softer texture, braising with chicken stock and perhaps a little pancetta is delicious. You can add the greens to a salad, stew, or soup (with creamy white beans for example) for extra flavor and nutrition.

Additional Tip
Blanching dandelion greens removes some of their bitterness. To blanch: remove any thick stems from your dandelion greens. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the dandelion greens; blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove and plunge into an ice bath. Remove from the ice bath and squeeze as much water from the leaves as you can. Use as you would any cooked green.

Fava Beans
Fava beans (Vicia faba), known in much of the world as “broad beans,” are one of the oldest domesticated crops, cultivated in Syria and Turkey before spreading to the Mediterranean and Europe. While they resemble such shell beans as lima and butter beans, fava beans are actually in the legume family. The bright green beans form inside slightly hairy five- to seven-inch pods, approximately a half dozen to each pod. Fava beans are still a staple of the Mediterranean diet.

How To Buy
Select fava beans with firm, bright pods, avoiding any with wrinkly skins or blackened tips. The pods of early favas are a pale green and rather smooth, while more mature favas will yellow and look lumpy. To check for freshness, open a pod: the downy lining inside should be moist and the beans tightly enclosed in their skins.

How To Store
Unshelled fava beans will keep in the refrigerator in an eco-friendly plastic bag or paper sack for about a week.

How To Prepare
Unless very young and small, in which case they can be enjoyed raw and unpeeled, fava beans require a two-step process. First, open the pods along the seams on each side as you would a string bean. Then put the beans in boiling, salted water for 30-60 seconds, drain, and plunge into ice water to stop further cooking. Using your nail, break open the skin and squeeze each to pop out the bean.

Green Garlic
Green garlic is very young, immature garlic (Allium sativum), harvested when the heads are just beginning to form. The natural result of farmers thinning their garlic stock, an increase in popularity has turned green garlic into a crop in its own right. Although not typically grown on a large scale commercially, green garlic can often be found at farmers’ markets. The sweet, delicate flavor pairs well with other spring vegetables such as peas, fava beans, and asparagus.

How To Buy
Green garlic looks similar to small leeks — lots of green stalk with a slightly bulbous white or rose-streaked root end. Select bunches with long white or purple bases, dark green leaves, and intact roots. Avoid plants with any bruising or wilting, and those with an off-putting pungent odor.

How To Store
Green garlic should be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel, where it will keep for 5-7 days.

How To Prepare
To prep, trim off the very bottom of the bulb (the roots are actually edible too, once the basal plate – the part that holds the roots to the plant – is removed), and use all of the tender white and light green parts. Dark green stalk can be saved to flavor stocks, soups, or poaching liquids.

The first mushrooms to appear in the spring, morels are in season from late March through June. Hollow from stem to crown, instead of a cap they have rippled, honeycomb-shaped spores throughout. They grow wild in many areas of the U.S., though they’re foraged most extensively in the Midwest and in the Appalachians.

These delightful fungi have a meaty, earthy flavor and an intoxicatingly woodsy aroma; they’re wonderful sauteed or stewed and compliment the sweetness of other spring vegetables. Keep in mind: morels contain trace amount of toxins that can only be removed through cooking, so never eat them raw.

How To Buy
Look for fresh, plump mushrooms with cut ends that aren’t too dried out. Avoid bruised or softening morels, since they tend to rot quickly.

How To Store
Remove any crushed or rotting morels and refrigerate the rest in a paper bag.

How To Prepare
It’s best not to clean morels until you’re ready to use them. Brush off any excess dirt, wash in cold running water, and use soft towel to dry them.

The nettle, a perennial herb and member of the extensive Urticaceae family, is named after the Latin word “uro,” which means “I burn.” While not all nettles burn, the most well known form has stingers on its leaves which prompts its name, stinging nettle.

In a shade of deep green, the nettle leaf is broad and pointy with edges like a fine-toothed comb, resembling an oversized mint leaf. Nettles grow wild in forests and woodlands, often near streams and rivers, throughout North America, Europe, parts of Asia, Russia, and northern Africa. Nettles have long been used as a medicinal herb, treating arthritis, anemia, hay fever, and kidney problems.

How To Buy
The best time to harvest nettles or buy them at farmers’ market is when they’re young and the stems are tender, before flower buds appear. Young plants will be shorter, about a foot tall (approximately knee high); older, tougher-leaved plants will be bushier and as tall as six feet. If foraging, choose locations that are less likely to be sprayed with chemicals or contaminated by car emissions. When buying nettles, avoid signs of decay, such as browning or soggy leaves.

How To Store
Once picked, nettles are extremely perishable. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for just a few days. Wrap in a towel then in a loosely tied eco-friendly plastic bag — the double layer is a reminder of the stingers.

How To Prepare
Stinging nettle definitely lives up to its name – it will sting like crazy, so be sure to wear gloves when handling. To wash, place the nettles in a large bowl of water and cover with cold water. Swish the greens, then lift out of the water. Discard water and residual dirt, and repeat until the water looks clean. With gloves still on, remove the leaves from the stem per your recipe. Once you get through the cleaning, you can quickly blanch the greens and use in a multitude of ways. Cooking removes the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled without gloves and eaten without injury.

Like spinach and chard, the nettle is a quick-cooking green and presents many opportunities to get creative in the kitchen. Nettle soup is the perfect spring tonic, and nettle pesto, nettle frittata, or nettle-filled ravioli are delicious. At SHED we like to add nettles to pizzas.

The pea is one of the major groups within the vast legume family. Peas can be divided into three general categories: whole pea pods eaten young and fresh, shelled peas eaten fresh, and shelled peas that are dried.

In spring it’s the arrival of freshly picked and eaten peas that we crave. The whole pods include the broad, flat snow peas that star in Asian stir-fries and the plumper, rounder, bright green sugar snap peas. The most common variety for shelling is the English, or garden, pea. Baby peas, or petits pois, refer to tiny, sweet English peas, while so-called early, or June, peas are larger and have more starch.

Pea shoots, with their soft leaves, curly-cue tendrils and watery stems offer the flavor and nutrition of the pea, and can be harvested in a quarter of the time it takes for peas to mature.

How To Buy
Choose fresh peas with crisp, smooth, glossy, bright green pods. Avoid any that are wilted, dried, puffy or blemished. For the sweetest flavor, try to purchase them from a farmers’ market. Pea shoots are available for a short window in early spring, so grab them when you see them.

How To Store
Once picked, peas’ high sugar content starts to decline, causing them to lose much of their sweetness and become starchy and dull, so it’s best to eat them as soon as possible, within a couple of days of purchase at most. In the meantime, store pods and shoots separately in eco-friendly plastic bags in the crisper drawer.

How To Prepare
For whole pea pods, snap off the tips of the pods, pulling down the length of the pod to remove any tough strings as well.

For English peas, shell them just before cooking to prevent them from drying out. Work over a large bowl, check for and remove any strings as described above, then squeeze the pod and press your thumb against the seam to split it open and pop out the bean. If needed, refrigerate the peas for up to 1 day. Cover with damp paper towels or cold water to keep them moist.

Whether pods or shelled, very young peas can be eaten raw, but most are best steamed or blanched very briefly to retain their crisp texture and vibrant color.

Pea shoots are delicious eaten raw in salads, in a stir fry flavored with sesame oil and garlic, or brightening a spring pasta dish.

Rhubarb’s intensely tart flavor and velvety texture when cooked make it a popular ingredient in pie fillings—so popular, in fact, that in some regions of the U.S. it is also known as “pieplant.” Rhubarb is the vegetable stalk of a large perennial herb (Rheum rhabarbarum) growing from short, thick rhizomes. The leaves of the plant are mildly toxic and inedible; the colorful, celery-like stalks are usually cooked and combined with sugar to offset their tartness. While it is most often treated as a fruit in the U.S., it can be used in savory preparations or pickled as well. Rhubarb is famously paired with strawberries in pies and crisps, bit can also be cooked down into compotes, tart sauces, or syrups. We like this recipe for rhubarb cordial.

How To Buy
Rhubarb stalks should be a vibrant pink or light green, glossy, and firm. Stalks that have been pulled, rather than cut (look for uneven, craggy ends) will last longer. Deep red stalks tend to be sweeter than paler ones.

How To Store
Discard the leaves and store the stalks in an eco-friendly plastic bag in the crisper drawer or with freshly cut ends in a jar of water in the refrigerator. Wash rhubarb when you’re ready to use it. Both fresh and cooked rhubarb freeze well, wrapped tightly in freezer bags.

How To Prepare
Wash with cold running water. Trim off leaf ends, roots, and any blemished areas of the stalk. If the stems are too fibrous you may need to peel some of the tougher layers.

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