Here’s a surefire remedy for any lingering winter doldrums: Head to the nearest farmers market, situate yourself among the piles and piles of new green, and inhale.
Spring, the season of renewal and rebirth, is here. It brings with it a bounty of fresh, green produce to chase away the winter gray: regal stalks of asparagus, bright and grassy; lush heads of lettuce, tender but crisp; peas bulging from their pods, sweet enough to pop straight into your mouth. In the wild, ramps and morel mushrooms, those elusive early season treasures, poke leafy tops and honeycombed heads out from the warming soil to greet adoring crowds.
These are the spring vegetables chefs are most excited about right now, plus their tips for choosing them at the market and making the most of them at home.
I am a huge fan of artichokes in the spring. A top-quality artichoke has a clean taste that is green and hearty. It should be sweet at the beginning, with a note of bitterness at the end. It should also be slightly astringent.
In Season: Artichokes are available from October through May, but their production slows down during the coldest months. Their peak season is March through May.
How to Buy: You want an artichoke that is very dense, feels heavy, and is an even green color without too many dark spots.
How to Enjoy: Artichokes make an amazing ragout for pasta, but I also love them steamed with aromatic herbs, garlic, and wine; or deep-fried, like they do in Rome.
Once cleaned and peeled, artichokes turn dark quickly. Either cook them right away or keep them in water that has been acidified with a little lemon juice. Milk also slows down the oxidation process, so that’s another option. Stems are delicious, but they need to be peeled before cooking, as only the inner part is edible. If you are cleaning the artichoke all the way through to its heart, save the leaves to make a delicious broth or velouté sauce.
Rigatoni With Ricotta and Artichokes
1 pound rigatoni pasta
1 garlic clove, chopped
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 artichokes, totally clean and wedged
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons bottarga, grated
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions.
Meanwhile, sauté the garlic with half the olive oil. Then, add artichoke wedges and brown well over high heat (about 5 minutes).
Add ricotta, season with salt and pepper, and cook for another minute.
When the rigatoni has finished cooking, drain the pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking water and set it aside.
Add rigatoni and cooking water to the garlic, artichoke wedges, and ricotta and toss everything together over high heat until well-combined.
Finish with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with grated bottarga before serving.
Every March, I get excited that asparagus season has arrived. It’s an earthy, clean vegetable that is great as a side dish to steak or chicken, but I love that it’s hearty enough to take center stage and be a main dish or a great salad.
In Season: March to May
How to Buy: You want to make sure the tips are firm, not limp. Look for purple-tinged or bright green, as that’s the ideal time to use. And if you squeeze the bunch and it makes a squeaky noise, you know it’s a good one!
How to Enjoy: Asparagus should taste clean, mild, and earthy. If it is bitter or sour, that means it’s past its peak or overcooked. And you definitely want a nice crunch when you eat it, not a soggy texture. I like munching on it alone with a little olive oil and salt because I love the flavor. But I also love serving it with a romesco and buttermilk crema. I sprinkle toasted almonds on it and it’s delicious.
Asparagus With Romesco and Buttermilk Crema
Serves 4 to 6
For the buttermilk crema:
1/2 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup yogurt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
Zest of two lemons
For the romesco:
2 red bell peppers
1 garlic clove
1/8 cup toasted almonds
1/4 cup tomato puree
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup butter
1 cup almonds
Salt to taste
4 bunches fresh asparagus
Make the crema: Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Adjust seasoning as needed. Chill until ready to use.
Make the romesco: Puree all the ingredients together.
Toast the almonds: In a sauté pan on medium heat, add the butter and almonds; gently toast for 6 minutes, stirring, until golden brown. Then, strain off excess butter and season with salt.
Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water. Top with romesco and buttermilk crema and garnish with toasted almonds.