Spring could not have come sooner! No doubt you’ve been dreaming of longer, sunnier days, birds chirping, grass re-greening and flowers blooming. And, we can finally bid farewell to winter fare and embrace those culinary harbingers of spring: asparagus, artichokes, fennel, spring lamb, new potatoes and more.
Fresh Artichoke Salad
One of the best ways to showcase the earthy fresh flavors of the spring ingredients that are just starting to emerge is with a salad of local greens. Tender greens, such as the watercress I used, are popping up everywhere: out in the fields, in hoop houses and on hydroponic farms such as Brogue Hydroponics, which is located in Southern York County. Brogue has been growing lettuces and greens since 1983. Beginning with one greenhouse dedicated to butterhead lettuce, the operation now extends to six greenhouses in which a wide selection of lettuces, herbs, edible flowers, tomatoes and more are grown hydroponically, i.e. plants are grown in a nutrient-rich water solution. If you dine out a lot, no doubt you’ve sampled Brogue Hydroponic’s products, as they work with many restaurants in South Central PA. Be sure to visit their stand at Central Market (Broguehydroponics.com).
There’s no shortage of supporting ingredients to drive that taste of spring home.
Artichokes are a must in my book, and since they aren’t something you will find growing around here, locally speaking, there’s no better time than the present to indulge in California’s bounty. The Golden State is cranking out plenty of these amazing thistles. A little time spent in the morning frost makes them even sweeter! Trimmed, quartered and poached, they add meaty substance to greens and go so well with other spring ingredients, such as lemon, fresh herbs and green garlic. Shaved watermelon radish, named after their resemblance to a slice of watermelon when cross sectioned, adds a bit of sweet, crunchy, horseradish-y heat. The final ingredient, hardboiled eggs, adds a little protein, making this salad equally at home as a hearty appetizer or light entrée. Fresh herbs and mustard dressing bring it all together.
White Asparagus Soup
What would spring cooking be without asparagus? White, green and even purple varieties are popping up, and there’s nothing better than a simple preparation to highlight the flavors of spears that have been freshly snapped off that morning.
White asparagus is sweated with onion in a little butter, covered lightly with fresh chicken broth and then simmered until tender. The asparagus is pureed at high speed until silky and smooth, and then it’s finished with a touch of cream, a little lemon and fresh chive garnish. Paper-thin shavings of fresh asparagus tips and a touch of truffle oil finish the soup, along with a healthy sprinkling of black pepper.
Grilled Leg of Lamb Steak
Leg of lamb is one of my favorite meats, thanks to all the flavors that come from the different muscle types, the rich fat layers that melt into the meat, the bone, etc. But, unless it’s cut up, leg of lamb can be a commitment for some, due to its size.
Let me introduce you to the “leg of lamb steak.” Ask your butcher (nicely) to cut a leg end to end, on the band saw, into inch-thick slices (or steaks). This will deliver a cut that has the best of all things lamb, but one that can be on and off the old grill pan in no time. Aim for medium-rare, and then finish it in a simple pan sauce made from a little beef broth, red wine, roasted Kalamata olives, roasted garlic cloves, capers and caper berries. Shaved fennel gets tossed into the simmering broth at the last minute, adding a touch of anise flavor to the mix. Serve it with steamed new potatoes to soak up all of that yummy sauce.
The dish is bold and rustic, yet bright in flavor, because of the briny ingredients. Don’t forget a healthy dose of freshly chopped herbs to lift the dish to an even brighter note.
Speaking of brightness, if you’ve never tried seasoning fresh fruit with chili powder and dried lime, which is a common practice in Mexico, then starting with a ripe, in-season Meridol papaya is a great way to get initiated. These jumbo red papayas are showing up more and more in supermarkets that cater to fans of ethnic fare. Slowly but surely, they’re replacing the smaller, more finicky “solo” or “sunshine” varieties that were once our only options.
Mexicans have a name for the combination of toasted and ground chile pepper and dried lime juice; it’s called “salsa en polvo.” A little sprinkle is all it takes to make fruit simply sing. I used the seasoning Chile de Arbol for its sharp, almost citrusy heat and combined it with powdered Citric Acid and Sumac, another citrusy seasoning. You can find both at Williams-Sonoma.
Having a little fun, red papaya always reminds me of raw beef or tuna, and so I simply diced the meat finely, a la “tartar,” and served it in a ring mold ‒ like you might beef tartar ‒ with a puree of mango “yolk.” A little lime zest adds interest. It’s a simple, yet elegant, way to make this super fruit a star finish to a fabulous meal.