Written by Teanna of Spork and Foon
After what seemed like an eternity, the northern hemisphere can finally breathe a sigh of relief:
Spring has finally arrived.
As the biting cold transforms into a warm breeze and the tips of green grass peek through the melting snow, the population’s demeanor also begins to shift. Heavy winter coats are lifted along with people’s spirits. Free time is passed outside instead of indoors as parks are filled with mothers with their strollers, friends rollerblading leisurely, and Frisbees flying through the air.
You may see someone walking down the street stop and rise on their tippy toes to catch the scent of the budding flowers on dogwood trees. People take to their gardens and awake the sleeping soil with tiny seeds that will later yield the most beautiful lettuces, tomatoes, vegetables, and herbs. Café tables once again find their way to the sidewalks as eager diners fill the seats to enjoy a meal as the sun’s warm rays shine down upon them.
But for those who still remain the kitchen, from the novice home cook to a three-star Michelin chef, spring means the resurgence of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh peas and baby carrots take the place of Brussel sprouts and mushrooms, the delightful fragrance of mint, chervil and tarragon fill the air, and fruits such as berries, apricots, and cherries find their way into sweet and savory dishes alike.
Responses to the change in seasonal ingredients are treated differently in each and every restaurant in the world. In the most extreme of scenarios, the famous Park Avenue restaurant in New York City changes its name along with its entire décor in honor of the changes in season. The restaurant shuts its doors for forty-eight hours as Park Avenue Winter is transformed into Park Avenue Spring. The stark white walls are covered with earthy greens and browns, the white lighting tinted by yellows and pinks, and the bare tree branches are replaced with tiny trees adorned with budding flowers as dishes such Roasted Chicken with Honey-Lemon Artichokes and Grilled Lamb Chops with Toasted Cumin Apricots and a Mint Garden Salad are introduced to the menu.
Not all restaurants take the change of season so literally, but many incorporate the use of new flavors into their menus with equal passion. The Queen Mother of seasonal and local ingredients, Alice Waters, has been universally praised for not only her famed restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA but her proactive nature and her strong voice in highlighting the necessity of cooking with seasonal, local produce, even influencing the First Family in their decision to plant an organic garden on the grounds of the White House.
But for all of the restaurants that embrace the change in season, there are as many restaurants whose menus remain static throughout the year, with rarely an ingredient change in site. However, the most passionate of chefs will say that such restaurants are cheating not only their diners, but themselves as well out of a world of culinary possibilities.
The advantages to cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients are endless. In very few situations can you actually get a quality item for less money. However, in the case of fresh, seasonal produce, shopping seasonally is actually more cost-effective. In addition to this, the produce tastes richer, fresher, and is more nutritious. Finally, buying not only seasonally, but locally, is yet another step in our never-ending quest to show the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle.
So how can we take advantage of this change from winter to spring? For the home cook, doing a complete redesign of your kitchen is probably not the most economical or feasible way to celebrate the spring, no matter how cute that baby blue Kitchen-Aid stand mixer looks. For us, we must find different ways to utilize both our wallets and our time.
For those who are lucky enough to live near a farmers market, one would be hard pressed to not be aware of which fruits are at the peak of their season. One can pick up sweet, deliciously ripe red strawberries that spill out of their baskets and pair it with a sweet-tart red rhubarb for a delicious galette. Add a bit of whipped cream topped with fragrant mint and you have the ultimate springtime dessert. Pods of fresh peas and stalks of beautifully green asparagus will cook beautifully in a sauce of lemon zest, butter, mint and tossed with pappardelle or fettucini noodles.
With limited or no access to a farmers markets, picking out the most seasonal vegetables at a supermarket may be a bit more of a guessing game, as supermarkets often ship out-of-season fruits and vegetables from all over the world all in the name of convenience. But with a bit of research, finding the freshest produce can be as simple as going to the farmers market. Tools such as Epicurious’ Peak Seasonal Map breaks down seasonal ingredients by month and by state, with a friendly point and click interface that makes it impossibly easy to find the freshest produce and even links to suggested recipes. Living in Texas? Why not make a delicious vanilla panna cotta with mixed-berry compote? Staying warm in Florida? Whip up some delicious eggplant rolls with a spicy tomato sauce. Is the winter still hanging on for dear life well into March up North? Apples aren’t only for the fall. Those in New York and Maine can still enjoy a comfy apple pie well into April. For those lucky iPhone Owners, a new app called “Locavore” brings local and fresh ingredients to the tip of your fingertips. And of course, Google is a cook’s best friend.
In addition to this, something as simple as taking a look at the falling (or rising) prices of produce is a clear indicator of peak seasonal ingredients. The price tag that now reads $3.00 on what was once a $6.00 bunch of asparagus is not a prank played by the bored 19 year-old stockboy looking to get revenge on his manager for scheduling him at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning. As produce reaches its peak, prices drop dramatically, which is a huge advantage for all of us looking to save a bit of money during the economic recession.
The beauty of cooking with ingredients that are freshest in the spring in summer months are their pure simplicity. One needn’t rely on complicated recipes featuring heavy sauces or lengthy cooking times to create a dish. The standout flavors or the dish are the fresh, natural ingredients themselves – the sweet taste of a carrot or the pop of a freshly shelled pea. Toss arugula with cherries, red wine vinegar, a touch of extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and thyme with some creamy goat cheese and you will have a dynamic spring starter. Top poached halibut with an orange vinaigrette and serve with asparagus sautéed in a bit of olive oil and topped with a dash of sea salt and shaved parmesan cheese or sauté fresh peas with spring onions in butter and delicate chervil for a side that is surprising ripe with flavor. Finish off your meal with a trifle layered with berries topped with white chocolate and fresh whipped cream for a deliciously light and satisfying dessert that can be ready in minutes.
Next time you are shopping, think about all of the wonderful possibilities that await you when you use fresh, seasonal ingredients. Feel and smell your way around the produce section and find the best ingredients to bring home and create a meal that is bursting with springtime flavors. Your budding new culinary repertoire just may match the budding life that is springing out all around us.