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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spring Produce Cheat-Sheet

The older I get, the more I appreciate spring.  Growing up, I considered spring merely a damp buffer between winter snow days and blissful summer vacation. Now, rather than looking past the season to longer and warmer days, I enjoy the world's slow awakening: days are comfortably warm, singing birds sound sweet and new and  flowers and trees are green with the promise of bloom.

In the kitchen, spring is likewise a season of promise. Farmer's markets start to pop up (check this map for local markets in western PA) and seasonal recipes highlight all that they have to offer. And with all these fresh, seasonal, local goods tempting me, spring is also the the season where I go totally overboard when shopping. I want to buy every seasonal fruit and vegetable I can get my hands on, and usually do, but twice as much as I need.

This spring, I will focus on just a few choice veggies: Arugula, asparagus and chard.  Not only are they  national springtime produce, they're crops indigenous to my region.  For more on seasonal produce, check out the Pennsylvania Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables guide and/or the seasonal spring fruits and vegetables guide (for nation-wide seasonal availability).


Arugula

Arugula, a.k.a. "rocket lettuce," is a dark, leafy green. Arugula is available in "common" and baby varieties, the latter being more readily available. Its flavor is typically described as "peppery," as it has a biting, almost bitter, taste. Good for salads, sautes or tossed with pasta.



Baby arugula
Baby arugula's big brother, "common"


For arugula newbies, try a cooked recipe (like this Lemon Fusilli) that mellows its sharp flavor by combining it with other ingredients and cooking out a bit of the bitterness.

For arugula pros, take your greens straight up: mix a few handfuls into your salad or green smoothie.


Asparagus

It's no surprise that asparagus tops the list of spring produce!  Though available throughout the year, spring is the time when these perennials are at their peak.  Watch the grocery store (or hit your farmer's market) to get spring asparagus for a steal; I've seen per pound prices drop by half, if not more when in season.  Also keep an eye out for the more rare (but kinda creepy looking) white asparagus.

Here's my favorite way to cook asparagus:

Dress one bunch trimmed asparagus with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice and roast in a 400-450 degree oven until asparagus begin to appear shriveled and start to turn golden brown. Give your pan a shake at least once through the cooking process (and line your baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy clean up). Top with grated parmesan cheese once out of the oven, if desired.  Serve asparagus atop a bed of greens with hard-boiled eggs.  Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.




Chard

I've already started seeing big bunches of colorful chard in the local/organic section of my grocery store. Chard, like arugula, is a distinctive green that's known for its nutritional benefits. Though I assume it could be used raw in salads, I've mostly seen chard used in sautes, after first removing the thick, woody ribs and roughly chopping. Look for the white-ribbed Swiss Chard and the more colorful, aptly named Rainbow Chard.



Whatever variety you choose, select the freshest chard you can find and try to use it the same day you buy it. Chard that is past its peak can taste bitter and unpleasant. Not so tasty.

Try out chard in this simple saute with garlic, olive oil and pinch of red pepper.

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