Seven Stars of Spring

By Jessica Prentice

Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are seven of Jessica’s seasonal favorites illustrated by Sarah Klein (sarahklein.com) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.

nasturtium

 

Winter rains always turn my backyard into an exuberant wild garden of nasturtiums. This brassica’s orange flowers are a beautiful addition to salads, but the deliciously peppery nasturtium leaves go into my garden pesto. I harvest leaves from my other garden greens—dandelion, lovage, nettles, sorrel, and mint—and purée them along with a touch of garlic, plenty of olive oil, and some ground, toasted walnuts, almonds, or pine nuts.

quail-eggNothing says spring more adorably than quail eggs. Many local grocers specializing in Asian ingredients carry them, but I prefer to get them at local farmers’ markets, where I can ask the farmers about the laying birds’ diet and living conditions. Quail can be raised humanely in a tiny amount of space, making them perfect for urban homesteaders. Their eggs can be cooked in all the ways that chicken eggs can be, though they will cook much faster and more of them will be needed to make any recipe. It is also fun to include quail eggs in Easter baskets. Dyed a range of pastel hues to contrast with their brown speckles, they are utterly charming.

dried-applesThe golden days of late summer and autumn apple harvest would feel so far away were it not for the wonder of dried apples, my favorite of all the dried fruits. They’re not too sweet, a bit chewy and tart, yet still mild. I eat them out of hand, put them in my son’s lunchbox, and also find plenty of ways to cook with them. If you’re on top of it during the fall apple harvest, you can dry apples yourself by coring the apples, slicing them thinly, and hanging them in a dry place. It will be time to get out those dried apples just about when the fresh apples we have been eating from cold storage start to get too mealy to enjoy. Most importantly, they will tide you over until late spring when the fresh stone fruits start to come back in. Then it’s time to forget about apples for a few months, and gorge on cherries, apricots, plums, and peaches, so when the first apples ripen on the trees you are ready for some crispness once again!

cardoons-1

At Three Stone Hearth, Sarah Schumacher (left) and Dylan West take custody of a delivery of cardoons from a Berkeley backyard CSA.

At Three Stone Hearth, Sarah Schumacher (left) and Dylan West take custody of a delivery of cardoons from a Berkeley backyard CSA.

Last year, I fell in love with an obscure vegetable that had always struck me as something elite, the province of highly accomplished chefs and sophisticated Europeans. But the arrival of a huge bunch of cardoons, harvested by one of my favorite local foodies from her backyard CSA and hand-delivered to Three Stone Hearth, pushed me to get over my intimidation. I knew that I, and no one else, had been called to brave the sharp spines and bitter tannins of this great green dragon of a vegetable. And so I took my kitchen knife and boiling cauldron of salted water and set out to conquer the beast. When the battle was over, I had on my hands one of the most delicious tapenades I had ever tasted. I couldn’t get enough of it, and we sold what little we had in a heartbeat. It left me with the unanswerable question: Why had it taken me so long to discover cardoons? And then I was struck with the impulse to plant as many of these perennial, drought-tolerant, soil-busting, spike-rooted plants as I could find space for in my clay-laden front yard. Now, instead of dragons, they are more like enchanted frogs, just waiting for a little love to turn them into princely dishes.

butter-beansMy favorite beans these days are Italian butter beans. The large white variety grown by Iacopi Farms in Half Moon Bay are so creamy and delicious, hearty and meaty, large and lovely, that I can’t get enough of them. Luckily, Monterey Market stocks these dried beans regularly. A polyamorous legume with a cooperative spirit, butter beans love all things Mediterranean like hearty or bitter greens, olive oil, tomatoes (fresh or canned), artichokes, anchovies, wine, vinegar, lemon, oregano, rosemary, sage. They are equally satisfying in a warming stew and a marinated salad. The only thing I wouldn’t do with them is purée them, since blenderizing seems an insult to their fabulous form. Like all beans, they are best soaked and then cooked as gently as possible: A slow cooker works wonders on them.

lovageI love lovage. This perennial herb has been thriving in my backyard for many years, and spring brings an annual gift of abundant leaves and stems. I think of the flavor as a cross between celery, parsley, and cardamom, and I especially enjoy it with seafood or lamb. I sometimes think of it as a permacultural alternative to celery, which is such a resource-intensive vegetable to grow that many local farmers and gardeners decide not to bother with it. But lovage is the gift that keeps on giving, year after year, with little care or bother. Mince its leaves and mix them into lamb balls, or sprinkle them generously over chowder as I do in the accompanying recipe. The stalks will get fibrous, but even then, they can be used to infuse a soup, stew, or broth with deep flavor. Tender stems can be minced and added to the sauté for flavor. If one season I remember to dry the leaves and pulverize them with sea salt, I’ll have a lovage salt that lasts through the dry months when the plant is dormant. Then I’ll be able to enjoy lovage all year.

clamsIn the cool and wet early days of spring, I can’t help fantasizing about seaside New England towns of yore, when cast-iron pots over open fires were filled with clam chowder—rich, creamy, and steaming. In reality, the mass-produced versions aren’t very good, so it’s a cliché that needs to be reinvented and reclaimed in a home kitchen, perhaps by tossing in some lovage leaves. Locally farmed clams are available throughout most of the year, and wild clams can be foraged most times of year as well, but it’s important to first check that there are no toxic algal blooms.

New England-Style Chowder with Clams, Fish, Bacon, and Lovage

If you go to a fishmonger, see if you can get some bones or a carcass of a non-oily white fish like California halibut or fluke. At home, put the bones in a pot and cover with fresh water and a splash of vinegar, then bring to a low simmer and cook for just 20 to 30 minutes to make a fresh and delicious fish stock for this recipe.

Photo courtesy of Three Stone Hearth

Photo courtesy of Three Stone Hearth

Serves 3–4

6–8 ounces bacon, chopped into small pieces
1 onion, diced small
1 cup chopped celery or ⅓ cup minced tender stems of lovage
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups fish stock, or more as needed
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1 pound boiling potatoes, diced into ½-inch cubes
1 tablespoon kuzu
1 cup rich milk or half and half
Applewood smoked salt (optional) to taste
Black pepper (optional) to taste
¾ pound white fish such as cod, bones removed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1¼ pounds fresh clams in the shell, rinsed
¼ cup minced fresh lovage

In a wide-bottomed pot with plenty of surface area, cook the bacon to taste over low heat, stirring often. Remove the bacon to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Add the onion to the bacon fat and cook, stirring often, until translucent and a bit brown. Add the celery or lovage and stir, cooking, for a couple of minutes.

Add the white wine and stir, then cook, unlidded, until the wine is mostly evaporated.

Add the fish stock, bay leaf, sea salt, and diced potatoes, then cook until the potatoes are tender. I usually use a combination of lidding and leaving unlidded to allow for evaporation. The potatoes should be just covered by liquid, but no more.

Dissolve the kuzu by whisking it into the cold milk. Kuzu is a thickener, and 1 tablespoon will make the chowder creamy, but not thick. If you want a thicker chowder, use more kuzu. (You could also thicken the chowder with white flour mashed together with butter or bacon fat.) Add the kuzu-milk mixture to the soup and cook, stirring, until the kuzu has thickened. Taste and add more salt to taste. I love to use Allstar Organics Applewood Smoked Salt in this for added smoky flavor. Grind some black pepper in if desired.

Stir in the pieces of fish, then put the clams on top of the chowder and close the lid. Cook for about 5–10 minutes, until clams have opened. (Discard clams that do not open.)
Remove the chowder from the heat, and serve sprinkled generously with the crisp bacon and the minced lovage. Delicious with salad and crusty bread or crisp crackers. Offer an empty bowl for the clam shells.

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