Easter has a special meaning for cooks. Of course, it’s a day of celebration, but it’s also a signal of the changing of seasons, of the shift from the hearty foods of the chilly months to the fresher flavors to come. Spring is a time that mingles promise--the cold and rain won’t last forever--and reward--look at all the good stuff that pops up in their wake.
Spring is a season in between. Winter is stolid and serious, with mashed root vegetables and hearty greens that are perfect accompaniments to the big meat braises and roasts that dominate the dinner table. Summer is raucous and spendthrift with its pleasures, rich with big flavors and loud colors--the vibrant red of tomatoes and peppers and the purple-into-black of eggplant.
In the middle comes spring, a season of cautious optimism, characterized by the pale greens of asparagus and artichokes and the fresh, vegetal sweetness of peas and freshly dug potatoes.
It’s a time of transition for cooks as well. While winter cooking is all process--long cooking and a conscious building of flavors--most spring vegetables need only a little preparation, be it blanching, roasting or steaming. But take it easy. Too much work and you’re going to cover up their delicate flavors.
Main-dish salads are one solution. With a carefully constructed salad, you can get the best of both worlds by combining simple preparation and striking juxtaposition of tastes, textures and colors. A great salad can be a complex and satisfying dish, even if it only takes minimal cooking. What could be better to bring to the table, for Easter or any other day?
But as with anything so simple, the ingredients need to be perfect. In spring, as in any other season, half of good cooking is shopping. And good shopping means knowing how to choose good vegetables.
Artichokes: Almost all of the fresh artichokes eaten in the United States come from California, and most of those come from the little town of Castroville, just north of Monterey. When so much of a crop is concentrated in so limited an area, weather becomes extremely important. The great Salinas flood of 1995 effectively put two-thirds of the artichoke fields in America under water. This year there was nothing nearly so drastic. But a deep winter chill did frost the area pretty badly.
This is a good thing on a couple of counts. Frost damages the outer leaves of the artichoke, turning them brown (growers call it “bronzed”) and softening them a little. Because of this, frosted artichokes are almost always cheaper. But the damage does nothing to spoil the quality of the vegetable. In fact, there are farmers who insist that frosting concentrates the flavor. Better artichokes for less money--what’s so bad about that?
Choose artichokes that are heavy for their size. Don’t be put off by blackening around the stems or leaves. Know how artichoke hearts turn black after you’ve cleaned them and let them sit? The same thing happens to any nicks incurred during picking and shipping. Just trim any damage away.
Most Americans only eat artichokes prepared one way: steamed or boiled whole. The best artichokes to use for this kind of dish are the biggest ones you can find (some farmers call them “hubcaps”). But there is a whole range of dishes that use cleaned and cut-up artichokes. For these dishes, choose the smaller ones. Because almost everyone else goes for the big guys, these will be cheaper too.
Asparagus: The California asparagus harvest got off to a slow start this spring because of the cold weather in the Salinas area and in the Imperial Valley, where it is grown. But the recent heat has gotten things up and running.
Expect to see more and more asparagus in the markets this spring as increased plantings over the last several years come into bearing. Asparagus from newer fields tend to be thinner--the fat stalks come from well-fed, mature plants. The choice between the two is largely aesthetic. They taste the same and they are equally tender.
The thin asparagus tend to work best when used in dishes, but there is nothing like the big fat ones when they’re simply steamed or boiled and dressed with a little olive oil and lemon juice.
When you’re shopping for asparagus, check the tops and bottoms. The tips should be tightly furled--if left on its own, asparagus eventually will open like a fern. The bottoms should be moist. Good shippers pack asparagus upright in crates that have a moist pad in the bottom. Good stores will display them the same way.
Fava beans: In the last five years, it seems fava beans have gone from unheard-of to ubiquitous. But they are still primarily a small-farmer crop. There is as yet no “fava bean industry,” nor is it likely that there ever will be. The fact is, fava beans may be delicious, but they are the very devil to prepare. There may be no more time-consuming vegetable in the world.
First you have to shuck the beans from their pods, then you have to blanch them, then you have to peel the thin pale skin that wraps them. That has to be done for every bean. Though the process does provide a mind-numbing kind of comfort, a mountain of pods winds up as a paltry amount of beans. It takes 5 pounds to get a single cup. Some friends recently served a salad of favas mixed with tiny cubes of pecorino Romano, which was very pretty served in espresso cups. And that’s certainly one way around the volume issue.
You’ll mostly find fava beans at farmers markets or at Middle Eastern markets. Pick pods that are stiff and that have not begun to wilt. The very youngest beans, which do not need to be blanched and peeled, will come from pods with no bean bumps. In a pinch, remember that Trader Joe’s has begun to carry shucked, already blanched fava beans. You just need to peel them.
Peas: If fava beans are labor-intensive, nothing could be simpler than peas. You can eat them raw. Some types are best eaten raw. English peas are the ones people are most familiar with, but usually only in frozen or canned form. Fresh English peas are a revelation. They do need to be shelled, but then a simple blanching is all the cooking that’s required. And you don’t really need to shell them. Try this: simply boil them--pod and all--in a little water with some butter. Then season them liberally with salt. Eat them by putting the whole pod in your mouth and pulling, scraping your teeth against the outside of the hull and popping out the little peas inside. You’ll never taste a more intense, sweet green flavor.
Sugar snap and snow peas are a little frustrating for some cooks for the simple reason that there’s really no way to prepare them that makes them taste any better than they do raw. Steaming, blanching, stir-frying, even roasting, just makes them less green, less sweet. Some things are best left alone.
Potatoes: It might seem crazy to classify the potato as a seasonal vegetable, but only if you’ve never had a new potato. “New” doesn’t refer to its size (small potatoes can be old too) and it doesn’t refer to a variety (new potatoes come in all varieties). “New” refers to young potatoes that are sold and marketed with minimal storage. You’ll know new potatoes by their fragility; you can easily scrape the skin with your fingers.
And you’ll know them by their flavor and texture. The best way to prepare these potatoes is to steam them until they are just soft through. Transfer them to a mixing bowl and add a chunk of good, cold butter. Toss them together until the potatoes are slathered with the butter, and then sprinkle them well with coarse salt. You’ll never taste anything better.
New potatoes are showing up now from both principal California growing areas--the southern San Joaquin Valley (near Edison) and the Imperial Valley. The Imperial Valley harvest normally starts a bit earlier, but it was delayed (and reduced) this year by cold weather.