What to do with the season’s unfamiliar treats
Spring is here in full force, and farmers markets are alive with welcome color after six months of rutabagas and parsnips.
Red and white radishes, so tiny and delicate they’re like pink foam, bubble effusively next to elegant purple artichokes. Perfectly coordinated asparagus spears line up in emerald formation, waiting for their first hollandaise opportunity — or maybe just tossed with olive oil and garlic and grilled at that most celebratory and optimistic of events, the spring barbecue.
Lettuce Soup with Marjoram and Spring Onions
It’s such a relief to see the familiar fruit-and-vegetable faces of spring that it’s easy to get in a rut. I’m not joking when I say I would be perfectly happy to eat an entire artichoke every single day for the entire month of May, and maybe even June and part of July.
Working at the Portland Farmers Market over the last year, however, has given me the opportunity to get acquainted with some wonderful and woefully underappreciated spring produce. I’ve relished the getting-to-know-you period with each of these fantastic crops, from the humble salad turnip to the I-didn’t-know-you-could-eat-that fava top.
Each of these vegetables is worth making space for next to your asparagus and radishes. They are delicious to eat, fun to cook with, and as perfect a way to welcome the season as eating the entire pint of strawberries before you even make it to the car.
Rhubarb. A hardy perennial and a member of the buckwheat family, rhubarb grows wild in Ukraine and Russia, thriving in damp and cold conditions. While it dies back to nothing during the winter, one of the most heartening signs of spring has got to be those first tentative, wrinkled rhubarb stems emerging from the soggy February ground.
Rhubarb at the market.
This sturdy fuchsia stalk isn’t losing any popularity contests, but it gets relegated to sweet preparations almost every time. There’s a real missed opportunity here, because rhubarb lends a mysterious and complex astringency to savory dishes. It’s great with richly flavored meat, such as pork, lamb, or game.
Try slicing it thinly and roasting it with shallots, onions, balsamic vinegar, and a little brown sugar to make a sweet-and-savory accompaniment to duck or pork chops, or make a lightly spiced chutney to garnish Indian curry or sturdy fish like halibut or salmon.
Rhubarb can also be pickled, and takes well to warm spices like cinnamon, clove, anise, orange, or vanilla.
Lettuce. We take lettuce for granted, but we really shouldn’t. While iceberg, Bibb, and romaine might be grocery-store staples, there are literally hundreds of different varietals of lettuce, with more being developed each year.
Frilly, lobed oak-leaf lettuces are easy to confuse with arugula, while red-leaf varietals like Merlot and Mascara are so pigmented they’re almost black.
In the West, lettuce is almost always used fresh, in salads and sandwiches. But there’s a long tradition of heating lettuce in China, where iceberg or other crisphead lettuce is briefly stir-fried.
The two traditions combine in grilled salads. Try a grilled Caesar: grill romaine, then dress it with olive oil, anchovies, lemon, and capers. Or grill a wedge of iceberg and serve it with ranch dressing and lardons.
Another option is a lettuce soup. It may sound unappealing, but when puréed, lettuce gives soup a wonderful, silky-smooth texture. It’s also a different way to experience a familiar taste: divorced from the expected crispness, lettuce takes on a surprising character, simultaneously earthy and light, and perfectly correct for spring.
Chicories. Chicories like radicchio, endive, frisée, and escarole are all cultivated varieties of Cichorium intybus, or wild chicory, an edible member of the daisy family that is borderline invasive in some parts of the United States.
Radicchio is a type of chicory.
Ranging in bitterness from the mild Belgian endive and escarole to the bracing sugarloaf, chicories can take some getting used to. But many of the most heavily lusted-after foods in the world are bitter, sometimes inedibly so: olives, chocolate, coffee, so many of those fancy cocktail ingredients.
Bitter greens are absolutely wonderful with strong, salty cheeses like feta or asiago; mellowed with the fat of eggs or plenty of good olive oil; or in warm wilted salads with candied bacon or hazelnuts. They stand up to sweeter, creamy dressings, or can be brushed with olive oil and grilled with salt.
Spring onions. Spring bunching onions are sold at farmers markets starting in April or May. They’re an entirely different ingredient than the common paper-skinned storage onions; they’re sweet and juicy, and free from the lachrymative aromatics that make your eyes water.
Grilled spring onions.
Sold with their bright green tops still on, bunching onions range from almost as slender as a scallion to about the size of a golf ball. Because they’re so sweet, they can be eaten raw on salads or sandwiches, but I love them roasted agrodolce-style (in a mix of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and brown sugar) or marinated in garlic, olive oil, and rosemary, then grilled.
They also make a terrific quick pickle: Trim the green tops (but don’t throw them out, as they can be used just like scallions) to within an inch or two of the white section, and then split the onions vertically into two halves. Submerge them in a mixture of one part red-wine or cider vinegar, one part water, a teaspoon or two of salt and sugar, and some spices (I like thyme and bay, but you could also use mint and parsley stems, or mustard seeds and black pepper), and let them sit for at least an hour or two before eating.
Salad turnips. Not the most glamorous of vegetables, turnips usually languish in grocery stores next to the rutabagas and other semi-mysterious root vegetables. But in the spring, mild and juicy salad turnips (also known as Japanese turnips) are a perfect introduction to this branch of the Brassica genus.
To my taste, they’re so mild they remind me of cucumbers more than anything else. I usually eat them raw, but they can also be pickled, used to replace half of the cucumber called for in a white gazpacho, or simply grilled and topped with butter and salt. (We often offer grilled spring-turnip samples at the market, and customers inevitably remark that they had no idea that turnips were so sweet.)
Their spicy greens are like a bonus vegetable, great when quickly sautéed in a very hot pan and dressed with a mixture of miso, tahini, and soy sauce.
Fava tops and pea tops. Fava tops and pea tops are the trimmed uppermost tendrils of their respective plants. I’m always excited by the opportunity to experience familiar tastes with different textures, and pea and fava tops are a perfect example.
Both taste like the essence of the legumes they grow, sweet and springy and just a little bit herbaceous. (Fava tops sometimes come with flowers attached, which are edible as well.) Unless they are very delicate, chop pea and fava tops into bite-sized pieces, then quickly move them around a hot pan for no more than a minute or two to lightly wilt.
Pea tops are a traditional ingredient in Japanese and Chinese cooking, where they’re tossed with sesame dressing or quickly stir-fried with ginger and garlic. They’re also quite good in crêpes and omelettes with chèvre, slivered mint, and (if you’re lucky enough to have them) some butter-sautéed morels.
Sorrel. Related to rhubarb, sorrel is also a member of the buckwheat family, and somewhat resembles a spinach with a delicate red stem. There are several types of sorrel, including wild and cultivated varietals, but all are edible, and all are characterized by their intensely bright, somewhat sour lemony taste, attributable to the presence of oxalic acid.
Perhaps too flavorful as a stand-alone salad green for all but the most dedicated sorrel fan, it’s traditionally used in French cooking to make a puréed soup, or to infuse a cream sauce for delicate whitefish like turbot or halibut. It’s tasty with all fish, in fact: try tearing it into small pieces to garnish seared scallops or sashimi.
When sautéed, sorrel turns a strange, brown-green color that isn’t very appetizing on its own, so it’s best mixed into dishes like quiche, spanakopita, or savory tarts where its color won’t matter. I also like it sliced thinly and added to salads, more like an herb than a lettuce or other green.
Green garlic. Green garlic precedes that most graceful and surreal of alliums, the garlic scape, by a few weeks. Often harvested before the plant sets any head at all, green garlic looks more like a scallion than like a traditional garlic head, with no cloves or paper skin.
Green garlic looks like scallions.
I am in firm agreement with the food writer Angelo Pellegrini when it comes to garlic: “My final, considered judgment is that the hardy bulb blesses and ennobles everything it touches — with the possible exception of ice cream and pie.” Green garlic is the first garlic of the new year, and it tastes like it. Fresh, clean, and quite a bit less pungent than head garlic, this is garlic for people who don’t know yet that they love garlic.
The mechanics of its use are much like scallions. Green garlic can be made into an intensely flavorful pesto with walnuts, olive oil, and hard cheese. (Last year, I ate green-garlic pesto on egg sandwiches for breakfast for almost a month.) They are also perfect for a hot late-spring day sliced thinly in a cold soba-noodle salad with sesame oil, mirin, soy, and mint, or floated atop a bowl of miso soup with shiitake mushrooms and tofu.
Margarett Waterbury is an Oregon-based writer, editor, and employee at Gathering Together Farm.
Broiled Halibut with Whole-Spice Rhubarb Chutney;
Lettuce Soup with Marjoram and Spring Onions