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7 Great Ways To Serve Spring Vegetables

The past couple of weeks I’ve been talking about lightening up our menus when spring produce isn’t ready.  Fortunately, that isn’t too difficult because most produce items are available all year.  Fresh asparagus has been plentiful all winter for the first time, thanks to modern transport, but in mature form, not fresh and young denoting ‘spring’. In fact we even use different terms in reference to gathering vegetables in this season. Normally we say “harvest” but in spring, we say “pluck”.

By now, however, spring produce should be appearing and please watch for it. It will be thinner, brighter and more delicate than the more mature items and the taste will be fresh, light and more subtle. It’s even better if locally sourced and brought to market that day.  These are young and tender vegetables and deserve to be treated in kind. Forget boiling and roasting.  Their texture and taste is best preserved and enjoyed raw with only cleaning, a bit of scraping and/or trimming or brief cooking. The key words here are fresh, easy and fast. I’m going to quote my blog of April 19, 2013 to better explain. To read more click Table of Contents.

“FAST preparation of food refers to methods of cooking raw ingredients quickly, sautéing, grilling, blanching, broiling, or to foods that can be served au natural or prepared ahead and simply plated; sliced raw vegetables and salad greens for instance.

 EASY is a term that seems to go with “Fast”, but not always, because it can involve the prep time as well. ‘The lunch wouldn’t have been so easy if the peas were bought shelled’, and most quick cooking methods require close attention or they may burn. All fresh ingredients usually require some work too. Oh, and are we including clean-up? So “easy” is relative to the meal and, I think, the cook.  Remember, all the T.V. Chefs doing demos on Fast, Easy, Fresh recipes have the prep work done ahead. They don’t stop to measure, run to the cupboard for ingredients, search for clean utensils or wash dishes.

FRESH is the key word here. Frozen or canned foods can be fast, and easy, but fresh stands alone. These days with air freight, refrigerated trucks on super highways, flash freezing and globalization of crops, making produce items always “in season” somewhere, its definition is debatable.  I like to think of “fresh” as recently harvested, hopefully that morning and not too far away. It’s so discouraging to get to market and find the produce jet lagged or travel tired. It’s even worse to buy it and find it has quickly wilted once out of the store’s chilled case. That being said, we are fortunate to have all sorts of fresh produce available to us year round, and if we can’t find fresh, there is always frozen. Actually, frozen is sometimes better than fresh. Often processed on harvesting site, it can be fresher than the transported raw items, and is every bit as nutritious.

Yet, nothing tastes quite as good as fresh, particularly local produce, especially to those who are used to it. However, it can be very expensive even at farmers’ markets which are becoming scarce or combining into co-ops to meet the brick and mortar overhead, upping prices. The best solution is to familiarize yourself with what’s available in your area and when, because for some items these markets are the best bet; early peas in shells, not petit pois, real baby carrots, not the dwarf variety, ramps and my favorite dandelion greens, among them. Other items, like asparagus, that harbinger of spring with a really short season, shallots, green onions or scallions, radishes and Bibb or garden lettuce are more readily found in various types of markets.

Whatever true spring produce you buy, or wherever you buy it, plan ahead for its use, as soon as possible, store it properly and treat it gently—it is only a baby. Don’t over think it, over process it, over season it, over whelm it with other ingredients or over cook it. I’m sharing some starter ideas below to give you direction including a family boiled dressing recipe, which also makes a great mayonnaise, when chilled, without preservatives.  Spring produce combines really well to create tasty salads and, mixed with grains, nuts or a bit of meat or fish builds truly memorable main dishes. This is one area where you can really take off and show your imagination

Break off the woody part of the stems and put the spears in a microwave proof dish in one layer, if possible, no more than two, or cook in batches. Microwave on high 3 to 9 min. depending on the thickness of the stems. If marinating, put drained spears on a serving plate, pour marinade over them and allow it to infuse as the asparagus cools, then refrigerate or serve. If saucing, shock spears with cold water, chill them and sauce before serving or sauce at once and serve hot.
For Marinating: A vinaigrette of choice is best
For Saucing: A plain white sauce is good or optionally for 4 servings combine
1 cup cooled cooking water
1 Tbs. cornstarch
Lemon pepper to taste
Dissolve the cornstarch in the liquid and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until thickened. Add seasoning to taste. For a richer sauce, add 1 beaten egg yolk to the cooled sauce and reheat, over low, stirring constantly until sauce is quite thick. Check to adjust seasoning.
Garnishes: Asparagus loves to be decorated, with or without a sauce, and will accept many things: sliced or chopped roasted or fresh peppers, chopped eggs, toasted chopped nuts and seeds, anchovies, capers, herbs crumbled bacon, even breadcrumbs.

Green Peas, Lettuce and Scallions (Green Onions) Serves 6
1Tbs. butter
2 heads Bibb lettuce-halved lengthwise
3 bunches scallions—roots and tough green ends trimmed
1 lb. peas- frozen or fresh
1 Tbs. oil
Salt and pepper and/or lemon pepper

Melt the oil in a sauce pan over low heat, gently toss the lettuce and scallions to coat well.  Sprinkle with a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Butter, cover and cook 5 min. stirring once. Add peas, toss to coat well in sauce and add ¼ cup water, cook 5 min. Uncover, increase heat to medium and stir constantly until water evaporates. Adjust seasonings using only lemon pepper. Serve.

Peas and Mint Serves 4-6
1 lb. fresh or frozen peas
¼ cup chopped fresh mint.
2 Tbs. butter
Steam or lightly boil the peas until crisp tender about 5 min or as stated on package. Drain, add mint or butter and toss to coat and mix, Serve at once.

Peas with Garlic: Serves 4
2 lb. shelled fresh new peas
4-6 cloves garlic-depending on preference
½ lb. cooked ham – cubed
2 Tbs. olive oil
Parmesan cheese
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and sauté until browned then remove and discard. Add the ham to the pan and turn a minute to coat, add the peas, lower the heat a bit and stir constantly until just crisp-tender. Serve at once with a grinding of fresh black pepper and passing Parmesan as a garnish. This is excellent with a loaf of crusty bread.

My family had 2 favorite dressings for spring salads. One is a vinaigrette made on the spot with the salad, the other a cooked one that is wonderful hot and equally great used as a mayonnaise when chilled, and keeps just as long in the refrigerator.

Vinaigrette Tossed Salad
I recently read an article in Bon Appetit stating that a proper salad should be dressed in layers. If so my family’s been doing it the right way for generations. There are no set quantities. It’s all to preference.
You will need
Salt and Pepper
Cider or white wine vinegar
Lemon juice
Olive oil
Garlic powder—optional

Cut or slice the vegetables as preference for salad. Blanch asparagus, peas or beans if using. Place then in the bottom of the salad bowl and toss with a few capfuls of cider or white wine vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Tear the lettuce or other greens into bite sized pieces and place over the vegetables in the bowl. Drizzle with lemon juice and chill for at least 30 min. Before serving sprinkle with garlic powder and herbs if using and toss with just enough oil to give the greens a sheen. Adjust seasonings toss again and serve.

Hot Boiled Dressing Makes about 2 cups
This dressing is wonderful, cold in place of mayonnaise in sandwiches and salads like potato, chicken, tuna and salmon. Hot it gives a new dimension to spinach and, if you can get them, dandelions.  Young spring spinach is best but the “baby” found pre-packed all year is also acceptable. Just make sure both types of greens are well washed and the hard part of the stems is snapped off. Either salad can be garnished with crumbled bacon. Used cold with the addition of quartered hard boiled eggs it can make a meal.
3 Tbs. sugar
½ tsp. dry mustard
1/8 tsp. paprika
1 Tbs. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. butter
½ cup water
½ cup cider vinegar
2 eggs – well beaten
Using the top of a Bain Marie or double boiler, whisk together the first 5 ingredients. Whisk in the next 3 and place top pot over bottom in which the required amount of water is boiling. Cook, constantly stirring, until smooth and butter is melted. Pour a little into the beaten eggs, stirring to prevent curdling, pour the rest of the hot liquid into the eggs. Then return the mixture to the top of the double boiler and cook constantly stirring until mixture is thick and smooth.|
Serve hot over chosen cleaned greens. Do not use over lettuces. All greens will wilt with the heat and lettuces don’t stand up well.
Chill leftover and use as mayonnaise or a salad dressing.

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