The very thought of spring conjures up notions in my mind of elegant meals with baby vegetables, perfectly cooked and lightly glazed. I think of warm evening breezes and abandoning my heavy winter wraps. It’s a lighter time — and that includes food. Flavors are fresh, colors are bright, and we are gently reminded that the earth has something grand in store for us in the coming months. Along with all of this comes the exhilaration of fresh spring produce.
But for me — anymore at least — it is often hard to know when vegetables are in season. Most vegetables, at least the more familiar ones, seem to be available year-round. But you know it is spring when the vegetable prices drop, and their appearance becomes almost delicate. They are small and tender; their greens, though vibrant, are not the deep sultry colors of summer. Even the ubiquitous herb collections that hang along the produce aisle in your grocery store have changed: the woody stalks and large tough leaves are now replaced with tender young versions. Lighter in both their aromatic quality and flavor, they represent the subtle expression of freshness.
And subtle is exactly why preparation of your spring vegetable selection is so exacting: You cannot afford to treat these babies the way we’ve grown accustomed to the more sturdy counterparts of the winter season. Most already know how to cook vegetables. They rarely require anything more than a quick boil, steam or, for the sturdier roots, a high heat roast. Understanding the essence behind each technique, however, will transform your spring vegetable repertoire into a gastronomic feast.
Certain vegetables do well in this kind of environment, particularly green vegetables. They are cooked quickly in the boiling water so they keep their fresh flavor and bright color. The boiling technique is essentially heating water gradually until its temperature rises to 212° F, the boiling point. As the water bubbles up, it turns to steam. The heat provided by your heat source is no longer at work heating the water; rather, its energy is directed toward making steam. As a result, the water temperature will never exceed 212° F unless it is captured (e.g. in a pressure cooker) or you add an ingredient, such as salt.
Root vegetables traditionally do well with this technique; however, they must begin in a pot of cold water and be brought slowly to a simmer. (Simmer, by the way, is water held at just below the boiling point.) Including the root vegetables in the water as it slowly rises in temperature allows the inside of the vegetable to cook.
The exception, particularly when it is springtime, is carrots. Baby carrots — for that matter any carrots, in my opinion — are best when they are lightly steamed and glazed in a flavorful fat. This month’s recipe of Cardamom Glazed Carrots is a lovely expression of that style of preparation. The gentle cooking — almost a light braise — of these succulent roots keeps most of the vegetable juices intact. Any that are exuded are captured in the liquid and fat. When the liquid is evaporated, the flavor is retained. Fork tender with a delicious mouth texture, the subtle sweet carrot flavor is delivered to the palate in a surprising and subtle expression of flavor and freshness.
Blanching, another form of boiling, typically requires vegetables to be plunged into a large pot of boiling water and then removed to an ice bath. The rapid shock treatment of heat and ice helps retain the vibrant color of the vegetable, as well as preserve the slight crunch that, in many greens, is preferable.
Blanching is best done in a large pot with a lot of salted water — typically 3 quarts per pound of vegetables — over high heat (one of the few times you actually want to use such intense heat on the stove top). Anything less and the water will cool too much when the vegetables are added. As a result they cannot be rapidly cooked by the high heat; they lose their nutritional value and color, and become soft.
The best advice that can be offered with respect to blanching is to taste your green vegetables during the process. Regardless of recommended cooking times, particularly with spring vegetables, every vegetable is different every time you take it to the stove. Green beans that take three minutes to blanch in May will, most likely, take a bit longer come August and September. Let your palate be the final arbiter: If you like its taste and texture, it is done.
Steaming is often selected as the technique of choice because of the nutritional value retained by the vegetables with this treatment. Steaming, admittedly, takes a bit longer than boiling — and because of the time and pot lid required for this method, the bright colors of your vegetables may fade a bit. But only a bit.
To properly steam, it is essential that your water is boiling rapidly before you add your vegetables to the steamer. Equally important, make sure that you have enough water in your pot to steam the full complement of vegetables you intend to process. Once the vegetables are in place, cover the pot and keep it closed. As with blanching, if you intend to hold the steamed vegetables for a bit of time before serving, plunge them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. (Of course, with this action, the precious nutrients you took the time to retain in steaming are essentially lost.)
Sautéing is a useful technique to bring out the flavors of spring vegetables, and in some cases to gently brown or caramelize them. Because spring vegetables contain a high amount of water, they will release this water into the pan, which makes for a flavorful pan sauce.
To properly sauté, a small amount of a flavorful fat is essential — even with a nonstick pan. This fat (I recommend equal parts of unsalted butter and olive oil) will add flavor and, when combined with any released liquid, provide a lovely sauce. Because spring vegetables are so tender and fresh, they rarely require parboiling or steaming before sautéing. If, however, you boil, blanch, or steam your tender young vegetables ahead of time, sauté is a beautiful way to add back warmth and flavor before your final plating.
Like sautéing, glazing is a technique used to cook vegetables in a flavorful fat. Instead of an open pan, however, glazing requires a lid to be placed over the sauté pan or other cooking vessel. This action traps moisture in the pan. Once the vegetable is cooked, the lid is removed and the liquid is then evaporated. The flavor of the vegetables is retained in the fat, which becomes a savory glaze. The addition of spices and/or herbs during this process can accentuate and, when carefully selected to complement the vegetable, add complexity to the flavor of the glaze.
Of course, there are a number of other techniques that can be employed with your spring vegetables — grilling and roasting come to mind. In my estimation, though, these processes are too harsh for our first bites of spring’s delicate flavors. A simple, elegant preparation is all that is needed, and it will literally transform any menu into a sumptuous flavor feast.
Among this season’s best, I opt for asparagus, carrots, fava beans, fennel and peas — and for no particular reason other than I simply love the way they taste.
Spring asparagus spears are the succulent young shoots of the Asparagus root perennial. It ultimately grows to a tall, fern-like plant with bright berries. In early spring, the shoots start pushing through the ground, and are typicially harvested before they reach 12 inches in length. Early asparagus is usually very thin. As the plant matures, the spears become fatter and juicier.
Like most vegetables, as soon as the spear is cut, asparagus begins to lose flavor. Naturally, you will always want to opt for the freshest, just-harvested crop. A dried, dessicated end is a sure indication that the spear is not freshly cut. The skin should be smooth and bright-colored, and the heads should be tight and compact.
If you must store your asparagus, treat your spears as if they are fresh cut blooms: Place the ends in warm water, tips up, and refrigerate.
Recipe: Asparagus Carpaccio
Carrots are a favored staple in my cooking because their flavor adds a sweet, rich complexity to a meal — however they are presented.
Carrots aren’t too challenging. You know when you look at them whether they are fresh or beyond their flavorful prime. Roots should be firm and crisp, and unblemished. Greens should be bright and not wilted.
It’s hard to do, but you must resist the instinct to peel your spring carrots. The earliest vegetables retain much of their flavor in the skin, unlike their mature fall and winter counterparts.
When it comes to storing carrots, remove the greens and store them loosely wrapped in paper towels in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator, which should be at a temperature of less than 40° F.
Recipe: Cardamom Glazed Carrots
The fava bean resembles a lima bean, but in actuality it is a member of the pea family. Fava beans are harvested from long, pale pods, with about 6 or 7 beans per pod. In spring, the beans are barely noticeable when you look at the pod, but they are inside, and indeed tender enough to eat raw.
Harvesting can be a nuisance, requiring first shucking the beans from the pod, and then peeling the skins. The skins are bitter and, in a more mature bean, are downright unpleasant. Once shucked and peeled, they should be prepared and eaten immediately.
Recipe: Fava Bean Bruschetta
Fennel is a delicious surprise to most who have never tasted it. Regardless of its rumored strong anise flavor, when properly prepared — especially in spring — its flavor is subtle and expressive, and never overpowering.
The freshest fennel appears in the markets as a firm, white-green bulb topped with celery-like stalks and feather fronds. The bulbs should be firm and unblemished with no indications of dryness. While the bulb will last several days in the refrigerator, it is particularly abundant in spring, and well into early summer. Purchase it the day you intend to use it, if you can source it fresh. Flatter bulbs will have a stronger flavor of anise, and are less favorable to dishes that require raw fennel; choose the rounder bulbs for a more gentle flavor.
Sweet, green, tender, and plump peas waiting to be shelled are the quintessential sign of spring. English or sugar snap varieties of freshly shucked spring peas are sweet and tender, and they need little, if any, cooking at all. Not surprising, such a tender young vegetable begins to lose its natural sugars immediately after harvest. If the peas are cooled immediately, you can slow the process down, but they should idealy be enjoyed the day they are harvested.
Freshly harvested peas appear shiny and firm. Avoid wilted or dry-looking pods. You will be happiest with your selection if they are tiny to medium-sized; the pods will not appear swollen or stuffed, instead they will look full. Smaller pods indicate immature, flavorless peas; large and heavy pods will yield tough and starchy peas.
Spring peas can be unforgiving, but with a little attention paid to selection and keeping them cool until you are ready to prepare, these little nuggets will delight you in soup, salads, as a side, and a sauce.
Recipe: Spring Pea Soup
Sources and inspirations from my library:
Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets by Deborah Madison. Copyright © 2002 Deborah Madison (Broadway).
A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider. Copyright © 2001 Sally Schneider (Artisan).
Smith & Hawken: The Gardeners’ Community Cookbook, compiled and written by Victoria Wise. Copyright © 1999 Victoria Wise (Workman Publishing Company).
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Copyright © 1998 Mark Bittman (Wiley).
Vegetables by James Peterson. Copyright © 1998 James Peterson (Morrow Cookbooks).
The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman. Copyright 1997 Madeleine Kamman (William Morrow and Company, Inc.).
Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters. Copyright © 1996 Alice Waters (Harper Collins).
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.