Chef’s guide to the farmers market
The first farmers market day is one of my favorite days of the year. For me it signifies that summer has finally arrived. The glorious, slightly wild flavors of the market’s first few weeks compel me to strip away any extraneous flavors or richness and look for ways to prepare the vegetables to allow their character to shine through. Here are my tips for some of the produce that will be available at local farms and markets for the next few weeks:
Asparagus Look for strong, well-formed tips that are still juicy and fresh. Try to purchase bundles of asparagus that are uniform in size, so they cook evenly. Contrary to popular belief, the size of the spears does not correlate to tenderness or flavor, so choose whatever size works best for your recipe.
Purple asparagus will turn green when cooked, and is deeply pigmented due to high levels of anthocyanins (the plant compounds responsible for the red, blue and purple hues in plants). It has less fiber and about 20 percent more sugar than the green variety, making it a more tender, sweeter vegetable.
Once you get your asparagus home, cut off the ends just like you would a bouquet of flowers, and store them in a container with a little water in the bottom (a quart yogurt container works well). It will keep well for several days, but plan to eat it as soon as possible. Fresh asparagus, according to my grandmother, can taste “as sweet as sugar,” and the fresher the stalk, the better.
Your options for preparation are virtually endless. Asparagus can be thinly sliced with a vegetable peeler and added raw to salads, tossed with olive oil and grilled or roasted until just tender, and added to stir-frys or vegetable sautés. However you decide to prepare it, break off the bottom end of the stalk. It will snap at the tender point, and ensure you don’t have any tough, fibery bits in your dinner.
If you’re feeling industrious, you can add bottom pieces to a pot of simmering water or stock, along with garlic or onion, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool, then blend it till very smooth. Pour the soup through a fine meshed sieve to remove the tough fibers, and season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper. I try to put a few jars of this away in the freezer each year. When February rolls around, I can take one to work and enjoy a breath of spring as I eat lunch at my desk and watch the snow fall.
Scallions/ green onions According to Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, green onions have 100 times more phytonutrients than regular onions. The green part of the plant is especially rich in these cancer-fighting plant compounds, so be sure to add them into your dishes as well.
My absolute favorite way to enjoy green onions is to simply brush them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill over medium-high heat until tender and slightly charred in spots. Be sure to prepare more than you think you’ll need; they will go quickly and are delicious left over in sandwiches or wraps.
Green garlic or spring garlic looks very similar to green onions, but has the distinct, sharp-sweet aroma of garlic. Generally garlic is planted in the fall and allowed to overwinter, and then begins to poke up out of the ground after a long thaw. Spring garlic is usually available in April and/or May, depending on the season. An immature plant that has not formed a bulb yet, it is sweeter and more delicate in flavor than fully formed bulb garlic. It can be added into any recipe that calls for regular garlic, but can also substitute for leeks or spring onions.
Green garlic is prepared much the same as green onions: cut off the root end and remove the tough outer skin. The green bits are delicious as long as they are not too tough, but even the tough top portions of the plant make a savory and nutrient-enhancing addition to stocks or soups. Green garlic makes a delicious pesto when processed with olive oil, salt and Parmesan cheese. Spread the pesto over bread and broil or use as a marinade for grilled chicken or roast lamb.
Spring greens Store your fresh greens in a zip-top bag with a barely moist paper towel, and wait to wash them until just before use. Mustard greens, spinach, kale, collards and Swiss chard are some of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence, and when prepared correctly, also some of the most delicious. These cold-hardy greens are at their most delicious under mild spring conditions, as they can become bitter with hot, dry weather.
Remove tough center stems and steam or lightly sauté in butter or olive oil with some green garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice. Sautéed greens can help round out a variety of weeknight meals, from pasta dishes to scrambled eggs.
Lettuces are another quintessential spring green, as they too suffer once the daytime temperatures stay above 80 degrees for too long. Black Seeded Simpson is a variety that my great-grandfather always grew, and I continue to grow in my garden every year. The delicate, lime green, ruffled leaves are delicious tossed in a hot bacon vinaigrette, topped with hardboiled egg, thinly sliced radishes and green onions.
Rhubarb Known in bygone days as the “Pie Plant,” the tart, fleshy stalks of this vegetable are most often used in pies and desserts. Additionally they can be used in savory applications, such as chutneys and mustard relishes.
The simplest and best way to enjoy rhubarb, according to my grandmother, is as a basic rhubarb sauce, spooned over hot buttered toast. Simply wash and chop the rhubarb stalks, add about one cup of sugar for every four cups of chopped rhubarb, a pinch of salt, a splash of water and simmer away for about 15- 20 minutes, until the pieces have broken down and have a texture resembling applesauce. You can experiment and add other ingredients like lemon peel, cardamom, vanilla or ginger. Spoon the mixture warm over pound cake or ice cream, or use it chilled as a filling for a layer cake.
Ashley Meyer is the executive chef for genHkids and has farmers markets in her blood. Her great grandfather and dad together operated a 20-acre truck farm in Springfield from the 1970s to the ’90s, selling tomatoes, green beans and limas at the farmers market on the downtown mall and out of their garage.