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Spring sauté

Time 1 hour
Yields Makes 4 to 6 cups of mixed vegetables
Spring sauté
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Print RecipePrint Recipe

I live in a place where nearly everything is available year round — so you wouldn’t think that a salute to spring in an emblematic dish would necessarily be reason for celebration. If we’ve had some rain in winter — which we recently, finally, got — then spring in Southern California means the intoxicating smell of jasmine flowers and the new blossoms on all our citrus trees. All of this aromatic sweetness is echoed in the seasonal vegetables that appear in our markets. From grassy to vegetal, a mix of flavors mingle with sweet sugars and a hint of bitterness. Some would say that really we just have two major seasons here, spring and summer. Somehow summer vegetables with their reds and oranges get more play, but I find spring to be an astonishing time to eat seasonally.

There are artichokes, asparagus, leeks, green garlic, fresh peas, fava beans, sugar snaps and lettuces and herbs in a dizzying variety. They all meet in garmugia Lucchese and vignarola Romana, two nearly identical soups from Tuscany, in the case of garmugia, and Rome for vignarola. The word vignarola is dialect for ortolano, or greengrocer. Fittingly the word garmugia appears to come from the Italian germoglio, meaning bud or sprout, so also a rebirth of life in the spring. The Roman recipe is said to be linked to Velletri, just southeast of Rome in the Alban Hills where historically there were once extensive vineyards. The legumes were interplanted with the vines and harvested in spring. This is one of those dishes you can easily imagine being cooked in the fields over a small wood fire — all you’d need is a pan and some olive oil.

The dish is such an Italian way to celebrate a season — just take all the vegetables you might find in the garden at the same time and toss them together in a single pot. Garmugia, like most dishes in these regions, is the product of poor farmers making the most of what they had. Imagine what a bowl filled with three or four or five different green vegetables must have looked like to a population of workers barely eking out meals made mostly of water and bread with a handful of grain or pulses and a few hardy winter greens thrown in as the winter wore on.

Except for the addition of pancetta or guanciale, these bowls are mostly filled with vegetables. There is just enough broth to allow you to dip some bread. In my version they become a sauté. I forgo the broth because part of the delight of these spring vegetables is the textures — from snappy to yielding — which are best showcased with just a quick sauté. (The artichokes take a bit longer.)

This might be my favorite Italian dish for revealing the transparent nature of the Italian kitchen. I’ve always thought that the reason for the popularity of Italian cooking is how simple and direct the flavors are — there’s no sauce, no opaque ingredients. In this dish everything is green, albeit of different hues. The shapes and forms of the plants are various, from the complicated artichoke, the layers of asparagus tips to the hidden geometry of peas. Garmugia is simply a combination of the available harvest — with extra-virgin oil still grassy and spicy from the previous year’s late fall pressing. My version is a bit different, not a soup but rather a sauté of whatever the market has that’s green, tender and bursting with vigor.

In Southern California of course we don’t wait for the first shoots of green to push their way through snow-covered fields. Even in this year of drought recovery, there is plenty of green to be found at the markets. And yet, pick up a fat sugar snap pea from Thao Family Farms — or any number of our local market farmers — and the crunchy, sweet bite is quick confirmation that, yes, we have spring here too. This year’s moment of springtime recognition came at chef David Chang’s new Chinatown restaurant Majordomo when I realized that I was compulsively consuming the plates of crudites and sugar snap peas instead of focusing on the more elaborate meat dishes, as were most of my dining companions.

You could say that those vegetables snapped me out of a wintertime funk — and that’s what they do every year, if we pay attention.

1

Remove the tough outer leaves of each artichoke until you see very light green to yellow tips. Cut the tips off and trim the bottom of each artichoke, and halve them lengthwise. (Store the artichokes in a bowl of water with the lemon juice to keep them from browning as you work, then drain before cooking.) To cook you can either boil them in salted water just until tender or you can sauté them in olive oil, covering them if necessary to create some steam to cook until tender. Drain and remove the artichokes to a bowl large enough to hold all the cooked vegetables.

2

Remove the favas from their pods. If you wish, you can push each bean out of its tough outer skin (the easiest way to do this is to blanch the beans in salted water for two seconds then shock in ice water). Add the double-peeled favas to the bowl that holds the artichokes.

3

Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and trim the bottoms. Rinse any dirt out with cool water. Cut the leek into half moons using all the white and 1 inch of the light green stem. Set aside for cooking.

4

Trim the green garlic and clean the excess papery layer as you would a green onion. Cut the bulb and 1 inch of the stem into thin slices. Set aside.

5

Shell the English peas. Set them aside.

6

Top and string the sugar snap peas. Cut them on a sharp diagonal nearly in half vertically so that the peas inside are exposed. Set aside.

7

Trim the asparagus bottoms so the fibrous stem is discarded. Cut each spear on the diagonal the size of the tip. Set aside.

8

Film a large skillet with olive oil. Add the leeks and salt to taste. Sauté over medium high heat until they wilt and take on a little color. Add the sliced green garlic and cook until you smell the aroma, very briefly. Add the peas, a bit more oil and salt and sauté just until they are no longer raw. Move the veggies around the pan as necessary until the peas are just done. Add the contents of the skillet to the bowl with the artichokes and favas.

9

Once again film the pan with oil. There is no need to wash it first. Heat the pan over medium heat and add the sugar snap peas. Cook them just until no longer raw. You want them to still be bright green and crunchy. Move peas to bowl with other veggies.

10

Do the same with the asparagus.

11

Add the herbs and minced garlic to the bowl and toss into the vegetables. Taste for salt.