What April Showers Bring: Spring Produce in New England
New England is never particularly kind to the seasonal cook this time of year. Even well beyond the official demarcation of the season when New Yorkers are awash in ramps and the first abundance of asparagus floods the Californian markets, we too often face not-so-gentle reminders of winter in the frosty mornings and sudden cold snaps that can make it hard to conjure up the same enthusiastic culinary response.
Yet however late spring really arrives, what it brings here is worth waiting for. Perhaps we owe some credit to the cold weather, since it makes the growing season shorter and more fertile and leaves us with some truly fantastic produce in the spring and summer months. Here’s what we think you should look for:
Scapes, Ramps and Scallions
Spring is a time to enjoy less hardy onion and garlic varieties. While their commercially widespread cousins can be found year-round, green garlic (the tops of garlic bulbs, also known as scapes), wild onions (also known as ramps), and scallions can’t be stored for a long period of time and are best enjoyed fresh. Scapes and green onions are widely used in Asian cookery and provide a fresh, sweet flavor that melts into the dish with none of the raw harshness of yellow onion or aged garlic. Enjoy them sprinkled raw over a dish or use them in sauces (pesto or aioli come to mind) and pickles (scapes are usually used in kimchi).
Ramps are arguably one of the most accessible foraged flavors this spring and are ubiquitous thanks to their appeal among the locavore East Coasters and the restaurants have chosen to fill their menus with them. While New England doesn’t get to enjoy the full extent of the harvest, their strong flavor (garlicky like a more potent shallot but with the shape and utility of a spring onion) makes them worth the attention. Any seriously garlicky endeavor, from aioli to pasta sauces, risottos, or Asian sauces, would be a worthwhile use.
Fiddleheads, Morels and Nettles
Fiddleheads are a pretty unique local food. You’re not going to find these at most supermarkets but these foraged treats show up around April and May in farmers markets. They have a crisp, green flavor and a tenderness best treated with minimal cooking – try them steamed or sautéed; think in the realm of asparagus recipes when you’re trying to use them as they share many structural and flavor similarities. Leftovers can and should be pickled, since the season is short and fleeting.
Nettles likewise only show up in farmers markets and foraging baskets. While most people think they’re weeds, a quick blanch will leech out the ‘sting’ and leave you with a tasty, bright reminder of the end of winter, perfect for warmer days and the lighter recipes they bring.
Morels are a special wild mushroom prized in seasonal cuisine for their unique texture. Even among foraged foods they can be a rare commodity but present a very worthwhile purchase if you find them. Enjoy these “dryland fish” in Mediterranean preparations or bread them and pan-fry them for a unique taste. They’re best enjoyed fresh or cooked and frozen, though you can ‘flash freeze’ them by quickly soaking them in water to build up a thin layer of ice.
It’s not always easy to find local herbs outside of the imported clamshells in the supermarket. If you’re thinking of growing your own plants, spring is a great time to start a pot. If you’re not going to be here this summer, though, you should take advantage of the abundance of local mint, basil, parsley, and cilantro, which unlike some other herbs are best enjoyed fresh.
Late and Early-Season Roots
After months of living out of the root cellar, the prospect of eating more parsnips, carrots, or turnips may be daunting. However spring provides the opportunity to enjoy root vegetables alongside spring produce and also to take advantage of changes in the chemical composition of the roots. Many roots are kept in the ground or in soil-lined storage cellars to mature throughout the winter, which encourages the development of flavorful exteriors and changes to their internal structure as they mature.
For instance, seek out spring-dug parsnips, which are kept in the ground during the winter and are particularly good during cold years. Freezing temperatures encourage enzymes to convert their structural starches and fibers to sugars turning these sometimes woody roots sweeter and tenderer, ideal for preparations like high-heat roasting but also great in spring soups that don’t have the benefit of a long stewing time
Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, are also a hard-to-find gem of the late winter and early spring. These unique roots have the flavor of an artichoke and the texture of a root, making them an ideal bridge between lighter warm weather flavors and the substantial qualities one wants in cold weather food. Enjoy them roasted, gratineéd, or frittered, or puree them into a creamy soup with all of the texture and none of the starchy ‘weight’ of most winter crops.
– Edmund Brennan
Cover image source.