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 Jessica’s seven spring favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
There are few herbs that say “spring” the way fresh mint does. It’s the flavor of newness, of what happens when water meets greenness and sends up a shoot. There are many varieties of mint that can readily be grown in a spot where they will get plenty of water. Many varieties also appear at the market, including various peppermints, which are great for ice cream or other desserts but tend to make savory things taste like toothpaste. I look for spearmint, which is wonderful on peas (see next page), mixed into yogurt (for raita), sprinkled on rice pilaf or dolmas, added to lamb meatballs, or made into a gelée to serve with a lamb roast or lamb chop (see recipe).
Lemons, along with tangerines and oranges, are like little balls of sunshine—a gift from nature to help Bay Area locavores get through the rainy season. Their fresh tartness works equally well in sweet and savory dishes, making them one of the most versatile ingredients in the culinary repertoire. Try to make use of the whole lemon: the peel can be zested, grated, or sliced off into thin strips and then used to add flavor to any number of dishes before the fruit is squeezed. A delicious way to use whole lemons is in a Shaker lemon pie. The lemons are sliced crosswise into thin circles, seeded, sprinkled with sugar, and allowed to stand for several hours or overnight. The slices are then carefully lifted out of the sugary liquid and layered into a piecrust. The liquid is then beaten with eggs and poured over the slices, with another crust laid over the top before baking. It’s a great way to have a seasonal fruit pie many moons before the first strawberries or cherries hit the market. [Look for Chez Panisse pastry chef Siew-Chinn Chin’s great Shaker Lemon Tart recipe here.]
Lamb is no more available now than at other times of the year, but it’s still an enduring icon of spring. A roasted leg of locally pastured lamb is perfect for an Easter feast. Lamb chops make a wonderfully romantic spring meal for two or elegant entrée for a small dinner party. Ground lamb makes delicious patties or meatballs—I like to season mine with lovage from my garden or minced fresh mint. My partner taught me to make burgers of equal parts ground lamb and ground pork mixed with chopped Kalamata olives and crumbled feta cheese—a crowd-pleasing combination. Lamb famously loves mint, so here you’ll find a recipe for lamb chops with a mint gelée reprinted from my book Full Moon Feast. The gelée is a fresher and not-so-sweet variation on the old-school mint jelly.
One of the pleasures of eating seasonally is watching how food plants evolve through their growing cycles, appearing at the market in their various incarnations. One such adventure begins when small bundles of spring onions show up on farmers’ tables, their small white or pink bulbs topped with bright-green leaves. As summer comes on, the bulbs fill out until they are big and round and sold as bunched onions. As fall approaches, the fully developed bulbs have the characteristic “paper” surrounding them and the dried leaves will have been removed. Through the winter, these are sold as storage onions. Then it is spring, and those pretty white and pink bulbs appear again. Spring onions can be used anywhere you would normally use scallions, and are especially delicious when quickly pan-grilled: First cut off the root, then slice in half lengthwise, brush with olive oil, and place cut-side down in a hot cast-iron skillet or cut-side up under the broiler. Grill until they get toasty and maybe a bit charred. Serve alongside meats or alongside your crudités with an herbaceous dip.
Spring is the time of year to eat snap peas to your heart’s content. When I buy them at the farmers’ market, they rarely make it home because I eat so many out of hand en route. Those that do become part of an actual meal usually receive a pretty simple treatment. I prepare the peas by rinsing them, then pulling off the stems and the “string” on the inner curve of the pea. (I don’t bother with the other end or the other string.) Then I melt butter in a skillet, add the peas, and stir for a minute until coated. Then I add a splash of water, a bit of salt and pepper, and cover to let them steam for just a minute or so. The peas can be served as is, or, for a really special spring treat, with a handful of fresh mint cut into chiffonade (thin ribbons).
Perhaps the biggest fans of dandelion greens are herbalists, who prize them for use as a classic spring tonic. Full of vitamins and minerals, dandelions are also famous for aiding the digestion by stimulating production of hydrochloric acid (in the stomach), enzymes (in the liver), and bile (in the gallbladder), all of which help us to better assimilate nutrients in the other foods we eat. They are good for us raw or cooked, or even fermented. As a component of sauerkraut, they add a third nourishing and balancing flavor to the sour-salty combination. I like to chop them and combine with other greens in a sauté, where their bitterness turns into depth of flavor and umami. Other excellent uses are in spanakopita, spanakoriso, lasagna, or any other casserole, soup, or stew that features greens. If you’re not a fan of bitter flavors, try adding only a little at a time. While you can find dandelion greens at markets year-round, in Europe foraging for them is a spring ritual. What an easy and lovely task to add to our local culinary calendar!
With the abundant variety of eggs available in the Bay Area, you can create a lovely Easter basket without dyeing a single egg. At area markets look for blue-green eggs from Aracauna and Ameracauna chickens, dark-brown eggs from Marans, huge white goose eggs, large white duck eggs, small speckled quail eggs, and undersize brown and white eggs from pullet hens (young layers). This marvelous collection can be hard-cooked and put in a basket for a beautiful springtime centerpiece or an ultra-organic egg-hunt! To make perfect hard-cooked eggs, first sort by size and cook only similar-size eggs together. Place the eggs in a pan and cover with water. Cover the pan and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. As soon as the water boils, turn off the heat and let the eggs sit, covered, until hard: 8 minutes for pullet eggs, 10 minutes for large chicken eggs, 12 minutes for duck eggs, and just 5 minutes for quail eggs. Then plunge the eggs into cold water to cool. (For goose eggs, go ahead and let the water simmer for a good 10 minutes, then let them sit another 10. The yolks won’t get as hard as those of other eggs.) My favorite way to eat hard-cooked eggs is simply peeled, cut, and sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, but they are also decadently delicious dipped in homemade mayonnaise, aioli, or hollandaise.
Jessica Prentice is the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection and cofounder of Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen in Berkeley. www.threestonehearth.com