Ingredients and their availability can tell you a lot about time and place. In a country where it’s easy to buy a lemon no matter where you are and no matter what time of year, it can be hard to remember how food and the seasons are closely tied.
When it comes to spring, there are certain items like tender green shell peas that help us stretch toward the light after a long winter. And then there are ingredients like asparagus that are available pretty much everywhere, all the time, but taste so especially good in season. In noticing the distance between the okay and amazing, and the pleasure of celebrating something when it has a small window of time, there’s a valuable life lesson.
Some of the best — and my favorite — spring ingredients are a mix of the readily available and the fleeting. From eggs to sweet crab, the five featured in the accompanying recipes are all wonderfully versatile — so much so that easy variations showcase their range and will encourage your own creativity.
The shaved asparagus salad (which could easily be thinly sliced asparagus salad) is dressed with a North African-inspired mixture of preserved lemons, their brine, honey, olive oil and is sprinkled with pistachios. If you can make that, you also can lean toward Italy and use fresh lemon juice instead of the preserved lemon and substitute pine nuts and Parm for the pistachios. Or leave Western flavors altogether and make an easy mixture of toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce, then shower the stalks with sesame seeds.
One of the simplest ways to turn rhubarb from sour and tough to sweet and yielding is to chop it and simmer it with sugar and water. This mixture can be strained and mixed with lime juice and seltzer for a pink twist on a Lime Rickey, or mixed with the same plus some tequila for the most beautiful margarita (throw it in the blender, if you wish, and salt the rims of your glasses). Or you can puree the poached rhubarb with its syrup and fresh strawberries and freeze the mixture to make a granita that has all the flavor of strawberry-rhubarb pie without all the fuss of making one.
Peas and mint have been friends for a long time, but I like to combine them with spinach, ginger, cilantro and fish sauce for a more Vietnamese approach. Add cumin seeds and a dollop of yogurt, and you’re transported to India. Swap extra garlic for the ginger and basil for the herbs, and you’ve got a simple Italian side dish. Fresh peas shine in all of these, but frozen peas make these recipes good anytime.
I eat eggs nearly every day, but a soft-boiled one feels like the best way to honor a really fresh spring egg. Soft-boiled ones with their luxurious yolks, especially, can stand up to bold flavors. My favorite thing to do is to combine them not only with something assertive, but also something rich and fatty to make them extra indulgent. Enter avocado and kimchi . . . or butter and anchovies . . . rich yogurt and a spritz of bright lemon. Anything goes. Eat these combinations on toast or with nutty cooked grains for some texture contrast.
Crab might be the most indulgent spring ingredient of all. My mantra is that when I splurge, I make it worth it. The featured salad is a mixture of crabmeat, small potatoes and watercress, all bound with a mustardy, lemony, creme fraiche dressing. It’s what I imagine ladies who lunch eat, but I’d rather spend my money on crab than a mediocre salad. The crab and potatoes can be smashed into cakes that you pan-fry and serve with the sauce for dipping. Or swap spaghetti for potatoes and let the lemon pour down for the most delicious pasta.
From my kitchen to yours, spring.
Turshen will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Turning tender stalks into light and airy ribbons is easy to do with a vegetable peeler. But you can just thinly slice the asparagus (on the bias is especially nice). This recipe offers three simple and quick ways to dress and serve them; see the VARIATIONS, below.
Preserved lemon is available at Middle Eastern markets and in jars at Whole Foods Markets.
MAKE AHEAD: If you want to plan ahead, make the dressing in a large bowl and then place the shaved (or sliced) asparagus on top and don’t mix the two together. Drape the asparagus with a dampened paper towel and leave at room temperature for up to 2 hours or in the refrigerator overnight. Mix together just before serving. (This make-ahead technique goes for the VARIATIONS as well.)
All recipes from cookbook author Julia Turshen.
2 tablespoons finely chopped preserved lemon, plus 1½ tablespoons preserved lemon brine (see headnote)
1 teaspoon honey
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh asparagus, tough ends trimmed
3 tablespoons roasted, unsalted shelled pistachios, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (see NOTE)
Whisk together the chopped preserved lemon, its brine, honey and oil in a large mixing bowl. Taste and season lightly with salt, as needed (this will depend on how salty your preserved lemons are).
Use a sharp vegetable peeler to shave each asparagus spear into long ribbons, adding them to the bowl as you work. If any of the asparagus tips break off while you’re doing this, just add them as well.
Use your clean hands to gently coat the asparagus with the dressing. Transfer to a serving platter; sprinkle with the pistachios and serve right away.
Adding tequila to a nonalcoholic Rhubarb Rickey turns it into the palest pink margarita. A fresh rhubarb stalk cut down to be a little taller than your glass is a nice garnish because it can serve as a swizzle stick.
To make a frozen rhubarb margarita, see the VARIATION, below.
MAKE AHEAD: The syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
½ cup Rhubarb Rickeys syrup (see related recipe, at right)
1 cup silver tequila
1 cup plain seltzer, preferably chilled
Coarse salt, for rimming the glasses (optional)
1 lime, cut into thin slices (optional)
Fill a pitcher with ice. Add the rhubarb syrup, tequila and seltzer in a pitcher, stirring to incorporate.
Wet the rims of 4 chilled margarita glasses. Invert on a small plate with the salt, if using, to garnish the glasses. Turn right side up; strain the margarita mixture into each glass. Add a lime slice or two, if desired. Serve right away.
Combining fresh peas and spinach makes for an undeniably spring-y side dish. The main recipe of this easy trio includes ginger, garlic, cilantro, fish sauce and tons of fresh mint and cilantro for almost Vietnamese version of peas and mint. Next, whole cumin seeds offer a whole new flavor without much effort (this version is great dolloped with yogurt and served with warm flatbread). The final version leaves you with just garlic and basil instead of the mint and cilantro for a simple Italian side dish.
See the VARIATIONS, below.
MAKE AHEAD: All of these are best served right when they come out of the saute pan. But they can also be enjoyed at room temperature, so feel free to make them a couple of hours in advance and just cover at room temperature, or refrigerate them for up to a day and then bring to room temperature before serving. The fresh herbs are best left until the last minute to stir in.
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (may substitute canola or vegetable oil)
One 3-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced (2 tablespoons)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2½ cups shelled fresh peas (may substitute 13 ounces frozen small green peas)
2 tablespoons water
5 ounces baby spinach (may substitute fresh pea shoots/tendrils)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 small handful fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 small handful fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, until they’re sizzling and smell very fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the peas and water; cook, stirring, until they’re bright green and tender, about 2 minutes.
Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until wilted, a minute at the most (2 large spoons used as if you were tossing a salad makes easy work of this). Turn off the heat and stir in the fish sauce, mint and cilantro. Serve right away.
A soft-boiled egg, with its irresistibly runny yolk, is a great foil for big, bold flavors and it also acts as its own kind-of sauce. Served on top of cooked grains with big pieces of avocado, chopped kimchi and a simple dressing made with the juice from the kimchi jar, this dish is a wonderful and easy meal for any time of day.
MAKE AHEAD: The grains and kimchi dressing can be made a few days in advance. Store in covered containers in the refrigerator and warm the grains before serving either in the microwave or in a buttered skillet set over medium-low heat.
4 large eggs
4 cups cooked grains, such as brown rice and quinoa
Flesh of 1 ripe avocado, thinly sliced
1 cup drained cabbage kimchi, finely chopped, plus 3 tablespoons juice from the jar
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 small handful fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Gently add the eggs; cover and cook for 6 minutes (it’s best to set a timer).
Once the time’s up, use a slotted spoon to transfer the eggs to a colander and rinse them under cool tap water to stop them from cooking. Tap the eggs on a work surface and peel them.
Divide the cooked grains among individual bowls. Evenly divide the avocado and kimchi among them, then place one egg on each portion. Break it open or allow your guests to break their own.
Whisk together the juice from the kimchi jar and the mayonnaise in a small bowl. Season lightly with salt. Drizzle over the bowls and sprinkle each one with some cilantro. Serve right away.
Succulent crabmeat, watercress and small creamer potatoes provide the versatile base for three preparations here: this lightly dressed salad; pan-fried cakes; and a fresh jumble of pasta. See the VARIATIONS, below.
MAKE AHEAD: The creme fraiche dressing can be refrigerated up to 1 week in advance. The salad can be assembled and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance.
1 pound small white creamer potatoes or fingerlings
12 ounces jumbo-lump crabmeat
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons red chile paste, such as sambal oelek
⅓ cup creme fraiche
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 large bunch fresh watercress (tough stems discarded), coarsely chopped
1 small handful minced fresh chives
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan set over high heat and cover with 1 inch of cool water. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the potatoes until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes in a colander and let them sit until they’re cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile place the crab in a large bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and the chile paste. Stir gently to combine and season lightly with salt.
Whisk together the remaining oil and lemon juice in a large bowl along with the creme fraiche and Dijon mustard. Season lightly with salt.
Cut the warm potatoes in half or into bite-size pieces. Add them to the bowl of dressing along with the watercress and toss gently to combine.
Transfer the potato mixture to a large serving platter and top with the crab salad. Sprinkle with the chives and serve right away.
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