In typical early spring fashion, the weather waffles between cool and warm, wet and dry, and raw and pleasant, but the season’s savory flavors don’t.
It is a time of the year when vegetables awaken from their deep winter slumber fresh and tender, and burst with flavor and color. When they are morphed into savory tarts, salads, dressings and purées, they are simply irresistible.
For better or worse, asparagus is available year-round, but the vegetable is at its best now. When buying them, remember slender spears are not necessarily better; they are from older plants. Fatter spears can be more succulent. Roasting the vegetable brings out its complexity – the sugar caramelizes and an ever-so-slight bitterness emerges. If you want to go the classic French route, poach asparagus and serve it cold.
Radishes provide some of the first color splash of spring. The early-season ones have a milder peppery flavor than the ones grown in summer, and are perfect for a raw-vegetable platter or to top a mixed salad. When preparing them, wash and trim root ends just before using. For a crisper bite, soak radishes in ice water for a couple of hours.
New potatoes, the freshly dug young tubers with a delicate skin whose sugars have not yet been converted into starch, are wondrous when roasted in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil, a good sprinkling of salt and pepper and fresh herbs such as dill or thyme. Or simply boil them with a little salt and slightly smash them for a chickpea, egg and potato salad.
Tender baby spinach not only adds a verdant splash on a rainy day but also brings deliciousness to the table when sautéed with sesame oil and crushed garlic. Or combine spinach with romaine lettuce for a spring salad.
Frozen peas are omnipresent year-round, but opt for the fresh ones that are available now as, after all, their season is fleeting. However, keep in mind that they should be consumed soon after being picked because the natural sugars in them turn to starch. In addition to the obvious choice – soup – peas can be use in purées and served with roast chicken or pork, or even savory pancakes.
The best way to let early spring vegetables shine is to blanch or steam them, then toss them with a little butter or olive oil and lightly season with salt and pepper. But it won’t be against the law to dress them some or even have them take the runway to earn all the glory.
Asparagus and goat cheese tart
Serves 8 to 10
Stylish and satisfying, there’s no mistaking that the asparagus spears, placed closely beside one another, are the stars of this tart. Recipe adapted from “Cooking With Cheese” (Ryland, Peters & Small, $21.95, 192 pages).
For the pastry:
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of sea salt flakes
2 to 3 tablespoons ice-cold water
For the filling:
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sour cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups goat cheese
1 medium white onion, diced
12 asparagus spears, ends removed
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place butter, flour and salt in a food processor and pulse mixture for 20-40 seconds, until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
Add water slowly and mix until dough comes together. Don’t over mix. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Roll dough out as thinly as possible on a lightly floured surface. Line 9-inch fluted tart pan with the pastry and prick base all over with a fork. Place on baking sheet, line with greased parchment paper slightly larger than the pan and fill with baking beans.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove baking beans and parchment paper and return pastry to oven for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until it is pale golden and cooked through. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, heavy cream and sour cream. Season with salt and pepper, then gently mix in goat cheese and onion. Pour mixture into tart, distributing it evenly.
Lay asparagus spears in a single layer on top of filling, alternating heads and tails, and gently push them into the tart. Bake for about 1 hour, or until golden and just set. Serve hot or cold.
Light, fresh and colorful, this salad screams spring. The creamy dressing with shallots and mint complements the salad so well that it will have you craving for more. Recipe adapted from Southern Living magazine, March 2016 edition.
For the salad:
One (5-ounce) package baby spinach
2 romaine lettuce hearts, chopped
2 cucumbers, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 cup thinly sliced radishes
For the dressing:
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup sour cream
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped, plus leaves for garnish
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Toss together spinach, romaine, cucumbers and radishes in large bowl.
Stir together shallot, vinegar and lemon juice in a medium bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Stir in sour cream and gradually whisk in half-and-half. Stir in chopped mint, salt and black pepper.
Top greens mixture with feta cheese; garnish with mint leaves and serve with dressing.
Lemon chicken with fried capers
What’s better than chicken topped with caramelized lemon slices and fried capers, and sitting on a pool of pea purée? Nothing. Recipe adapted from “Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101” by Sara Moulton (Oxmoor House, $35, 368 pages).
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast cutlets, thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, dried
Flour for dredging
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large lemon, sliced thin crosswise
2 tablespoons sugar
2 shallots, minced
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
Pound chicken flat, pat dry and cut in pieces in half if they are too large.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high and then add capers. Stir until they are crisp (they do pop, so be careful), about 2 minutes. Transfer capers to a small bowl.
Mix flour and chili powder on a plate. Add 2 tablespoons oil to skillet and heat it over medium-high.
Season chicken with salt and pepper on both sides and coat pieces lightly with flour, shaking off the excess. Add chicken to oil, and cook until lightly golden, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to plate.
Dip lemon slices in sugar, coating them on both sides, and add to skillet. Cook over medium heat until they are lightly caramelized, about 1 to 2 minutes each side. Transfer to plate with chicken.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and shallots, stirring for about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.
Return chicken and lemon slices to the pan, along with any juices from the plate. Simmer gently, turning the chicken over several times until it is heated through.
Transfer chicken and lemon to plates and simmer sauce until it has thickened slightly. Spoon sauce and lemon slices over chicken and top with fried capers. Serve with pea purée (recipe at left).
Sweet pea purée
This sweet and spicy purée with a hint of mint radiates with spring flavor and color. It complements sauteed chicken, flaky crab cakes or pan-seared tilapia. Recipe by Arthi Subramaniam.
8 ounces frozen green peas, thawed
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon feta cheese
1 tablespoon fresh chopped mint
2 garlic cloves
1 green chili
Salt to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor; blend until smooth. Serve at room temperature.
Chickpea, egg and potato salad
The hearty salad is best served warm. For a tangy dressing, I used lemon juice instead of white wine vinegar, which was in the original recipe. Recipe adapted from “Appetizers” (Ryland, Peters & Small, $19.95, 128 pages)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, crushed
Salt and ground black pepper to taste, divided
1 pound new potatoes
One (14-ounce) can chickpeas
Handful of pitted black olives
3 hard-boiled eggs
Handful of fresh chives, chopped
For the dressing, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and garlic. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.
Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain, and slightly squash with back of a fork in a bowl.
Drain and rinse chickpeas, smash 1/3 of them slightly, then mix with remaining chickpeas and add to potatoes in bowl. Add olives and dressing; mix gently.
Transfer salad to a serving plate. Peel and chop the eggs in quarters and place them all over the salad. Sprinkle chives on top, and serve immediately.