Maturity is not all it’s cracked up to be. Aging may transform ingredients like wine and beef and cheese, but any number of other foods do even better on the Peter Pan principle: I don’t want to grow up.
This time of year it’s easy to see why. Spring is not a season when bigger is better: The sweetest strawberries are sometimes the tiniest, and the nuttiest-tasting asparagus the spindliest. No wonder all the miniature fruits and vegetables and proteins available most every month of the year start looking deceptively seasonal. Literally forever young, they’re the perfect temptations for appetites edging away from winter’s bring-it-on heartiness.
Right now even the average supermarket is overstocked with little examples: baby artichokes and baby carrots, baby arugula and baby avocados, baby bananas and even baby kiwifruit. Farmers markets are filling up with pea shoots (the gleam in a pea grower’s eye) and baby leeks and especially green garlic, which is essentially embryonic bulbs. Over in the meat aisle there are baby chickens (poussins to the precise French), and at the fish counter (at Asian markets, anyway), baby octopus and baby squid. Most of these can be found at other times of year, but never do they look so alluring. This is fertility season, artificial though it may be.
Baby vegetables first came onto the American food scene big time about 20 years ago, when nouvelle cuisine was still inescapable. Back then the sliver of salmon in the pool of sauce on the oversized plate would have looked too skimpy unless the “sides” with it were miniaturized as well. Ever since, they seem to have gone in and out of fashion in high-end restaurants while staking out ever larger bins in the produce aisle. But lately they seem to be stepping out of the nursery again, and it’s easy to taste why.
The true babies, the ones that are tiny because they have not reached full size, are undeniably the most rewarding. A baby zucchini with blossom still attached is a thing of beauty with full-bore flavor. But even the babies cultivated to stay endlessly youthful have their merits. Baby carrots, for instance, are simply bred to be sweet at a tender age. So are baby turnips, baby cauliflower and even that chef’s transgression, baby pattypans. Any of them is quicker to cook and more dramatic on a plate than the “adults.”
Baby artichokes are not infants at all but vegetables that stay small because they sprout at the base of the plant, shaded by leaves from the growth-enhancing sun. But they have even more flavor than the fat globes; because they are so tiny and tender and have not developed the nasty hairy choke at the center, you can almost eat the whole thing. (Just cut away the tough outer leaves to get to the pliable heart, slice it very thin and toss it into a salad, with fava beans and pecorino in the Italian tradition. Baby artichokes also take well to braising, and again, you can eat the whole thing, without the long wait and waste involved with a full-size artichoke.)
Baby spinach and baby arugula are seasonal sensations only in sunshine-deprived parts of America and a year-round staple in Southern California. But in either case they are milder, more tender cousins of the floppy leaves that wind up in markets as the summer heats up. Baby spinach is so soft it can be eaten straight in a salad, without the usual hot-bacon dressing needed for wilting, or with something buttery like ripe avocado (baby or regular). Baby arugula has an edge over its full-grown version too: the spindly parts haven’t taken over the whole leaves, and the greens retain their bite without bitterness.
Once upon a time in America new potatoes really were new, but now they are available year-round everywhere. And fingerlings, of course, are only a variety of potato, a big, wide variety at that. But in farmers markets you can usually find tiny just-dug spring potatoes that almost taste of the earth under their fragile skins. True new potatoes are all soft flesh, unlike the “new” red potatoes that have been dry-cured for better storage. They roast up beautifully but have such inherent flavor they can be served just boiled and tossed with coarse sea salt and butter.
Beyond all the legitimate babies, a few Joan Riverses unfortunately get through the child guards into supermarkets. As Elizabeth Schneider says in her excellent book “Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini,” “Plastic-bagged ‘mini-carrots’ are as likely as not to be older carrots machine-cut (‘baby-cut’) to resemble little ones.” The things are everywhere these days, but nothing that uniform exists in nature. As Schneider adds, with characteristic tartness: “If convenience matters more than taste and nutritional value, they’re the ones to buy.”
Mesclun is another potential pretender to babyhood. It originated as the tiniest and best leaves but has devolved into a wild tangle where anything goes, at any size. (Most of the time the “baby” greens are bulked up with huge chunks of radicchio.)
On the protein side of the nursery, baby lamb and suckling pig are the most obvious examples of what might be considered spring-sizing -- traditionally they were born and served this time of year without ever being allowed to reach their full potential. But a whole animal can seem like a relic from a world where feeding a village was a seasonal rite. As good and succulent as they are, today they’re unwieldy even for a dinner party.
Baby chickens, however, are another story. They’re not quite Easter chicks, but they do have a tenderness their elders have lost. Even better, each poussin serves one, with the elegance and refinement a Cornish hen completely lacks. (Half a roast chicken or less always seems a bit mingy for company.) To dress it up, you can stuff a poussin under the skin with a mix of spring garlic and herbs -- chives, dill, tarragon and parsley -- to keep the meat juicy and perfumed. Because a one-pound poussin cooks so quickly, the herbs stay vibrantly green as the skin crisps to a deep tan.
For a baby dessert, the obvious choice is bananas, which, like so many infantilized foods, are really not babies at all but hybrids bred to be sweetly full-flavored in dwarf state. I actually far prefer them to “grown-up” bananas, which often taste more woody than fruity. The most dramatic way to serve a baby is tempura style: marinated in rum with nutmeg and a little Angostura bitters, coated in airy batter and deep-fried. Try that with a big banana and you’d be facing down Baby Huey.