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Springtime always entices me to polish up my prowess in the kitchen, to plan new menus around the fruits and vegetables in the market, to try new foods and to experiment with recipes that I've never tried before.
Spring vegetables, like asparagus, spring greens and artichokes, are so welcome at this time of year. At last the long hard days of winter are drawing to an end - although the weather can still be very unpredictable. But after months with little choice of seasonal produce, root crops are starting to dwindle, and some of the leafier vegetables are making an appearance. Even the ones that have been around all winter seem fresher and newer now. You'll have to wait a little longer, though, until there are fresh varieties of fruit on offer.
One of my all-time favorite spring vegetables is asparagus. (I have been known to serve just a mound of fresh-cooked asparagus with some type of dipping sauce as a weeknight supper.)
To buy asparagus, choose firm green ones with tightly closed tips. The sooner you eat your asparagus, the better it will taste. To store it, wrap the bottom of the stalks in a damp paper towel, put everything in a plastic bag, and refrigerate until ready to use. Alternatively, trim the bottom of the spears and stand the asparagus, covered in a plastic bag, in 3 cm. of water in the refrigerator to keep for a few days.
To cook the asparagus, take each spear by its ends and bend gently. It will snap approximately at the point where tenderness begins. You can reserve the stem ends for soup, or discard them. If the stalks are at all thick, peel the portion of the stalk below the tip with an asparagus or vegetable peeler so that the tips and the stalk cook evenly.
Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil. Drop in the asparagus spears, let the water return to a boil, and cook uncovered to desired doneness. The cooking time will vary, depending on the size and freshness of the asparagus spears. If you will be reheating the asparagus later, stop the cooking when it is still fairly crisp. If you are serving it cold with dips, it should be tender but not droopy. If you want to serve it cold, for example in a vinaigrette, it can be quite tender - as long as the spears are not mushy.
Have a large bowl of ice water nearby. When the asparagus is perfect, transfer it with tongs to the ice water. This stops the cooking and sets the bright green color. Let the asparagus stand until thoroughly cool, drain and pat dry. Cover until ready to use, refrigerating if serving time is several hours off.
Asparagus is best eaten on the same day as cooked, but it will keep for another day, losing only a little of its flavor and texture in the refrigerator. However, do not add any sauce to the asparagus until just before serving, as the asparagus may discolor, particularly if the sauce is acidic.
The majority of peas that are harvested and sold are marketed as frozen peas, with canned peas being second - but there is nothing like the taste of fresh peas. Half a kilo of fresh peas yields approximately 1 cup of peas. It is labor intensive to prepare them, but well worth it.
When selecting fresh green peas, check the pod carefully. Look for peas that are firm, crisp, are bright green in color and have a fresh appearance. Fresh peas will feel almost velvet-like when you handle them. Try to buy medium-sized pods rather than large ones, and avoid tough, thick-skinned pods. This is an indication that the peas are too mature. Also avoid pre-shelled peas. You don't know when they were shelled.
When you bring green peas home from the market, remember they have a very short shelf life, so use them right away. The fresher the peas, the shorter the cooking time. Cook, as for asparagus, for about five minutes. They should be crisp-tender.
My favorite way to eat fresh green peas is simply with butter and salt.
Another of my favorite spring vegetables is artichokes. The artichoke makes no concessions to those who want a quick meal. So, in this age of "fast food" and "quick fixes," what keeps this commodity growing? Serious artichoke eaters will tell you that the reason for eating an artichoke is its unique, nutty flavor.
Look for nice, firm, unblemished artichokes that are closed. Usually one artichoke per person is sufficient.
Most people cook the whole artichoke and slip each leaf petal, one by one, through their teeth until they reach the delectable heart. Children love them because the get to eat artichokes with their fingers!
It's not only fun to eat, but it's good for you. One 350-gr. artichoke is a good source of vitamin C, folate and potassium. It's low in sodium, fat-free and a dieter's delight at only 25 calories.
ASPARAGUS WITH DUNKING SAUCE
Makes 6-8 servings
4 1 cup sour cream
4 1â„4 cup packed parsley
4 2 Tbsp. packed fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon, dill or basil
4 Salt and pepper
4 900 gr. trimmed asparagus, cooked till tender-crisp
In a blender or food processor, mix the sour cream, parsley and herbs till very smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange the asparagus on a platter and drizzle a little of the sauce over the middle of the asparagus spears; pass the rest of the sauce.
THREE-PEA STIR FRY
If you don't have all three types of peas, use what you do have.
Makes 4 servings
4 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 1 large garlic clove, minced
4 1 Tbsp. finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
4 170 gr. sugar snap peas, trimmed and cut diagonally into 21â„2 cm. pieces
4 170 gr. snow peas, trimmed and cut diagonally into 21â„2 cm. pieces
4 1 cup fresh green peas
4 1 tsp. soy sauce
4 Dash hot pepper sauce
4 1 tsp. Asian sesame oil
4 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted
Heat vegetable oil in a 30-cm. nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then stir-fry garlic and ginger about 1 minute. Add sugar snaps and snow peas and stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Add peas and stir-fry until hot, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, then stir in hot pepper sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and season with salt.
YOUNG GREENS WITH LEMON AND GARLIC
I often take bright young leaves and their sprouting shoots, cook them very briefly in boiling water, then toss them into sizzling butter seasoned with garlic and lemon. A good side dish for grilled meat or chicken.
Makes 2 servings
4 2 large handfuls of red Russian kale or any tender young greens
4 3 Tbsp. butter, optional
4 A little olive oil
4 2 cloves garlic
4 A little lemon zest
4 Juice of 1â„2 a lemon
Wash the greens and set them aside. Bring a pan of water to boil, salt it lightly and cook the greens for no longer than a minute or two. They must retain their crispness and vigor. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, warm the butter and oil in a shallow pan, peel and crush the garlic and soften it in the butter/oil mixture. Add a little grated lemon zest (a couple of teaspoons should suffice), then, as the butter starts to froth, squeeze in the lemon juice.
Lower the greens into the pan and toss them gently in the hot, lemony garlic butter. Correct the seasoning and serve immediately.n