After months and months of earth-colored produce, the first bright-green spring vegetable can provoke a bacchanalia among even your most sober customers. But too often, they may restrict that orgy of gorging to their eyes only. Spring and early summer is the harbinger of difficult produce—artichokes, sorrel, rhubarb, turnips and other fruits and veggies customers aren't sure how to cook. Too often, their relationship with spring's bounty is "look, but don't touch."
To encourage your customers to not only touch, but taste and ultimately buy spring and early-summer produce, we asked three organic chefs, along with an organic produce specialist, to offer suggestions on simple, easy ways to cook or serve these fruits and vegetables. Here are their tips, which can be posted as recipe suggestions in your produce section:
Artichokes are so complicated and scary looking, "in my experience, people are afraid to even handle them. But once you've cooked an artichoke, they're not that intimidating," says New York chef Dana Jacobi, author of four cookbooks including 12 Best Foods Cookbook (Rodale, 2005). The trick, she says, is recognizing that you basically have to throw away about half the artichoke—trim and toss all but about an inch or so of stem, the tough outer leaves and the grassy-looking stuff in the center, known as the choke.
Jacobi likes to boil artichokes with lemon, which preserves the green color, then brush them with oil and grill them. "It gives a wonderful, smoky flavor," she says. Another option is to cut an artichoke into wedges and simmer it in water and chicken broth.
Akasha Richmond, chef and owner of the Los Angeles-based catering company Akasha's Visionary Cuisine, likes to peel the tender, inner artichoke leaves and blanch them in lemon water until tender. She then sautés them in olive oil, lemon zest, salt and pepper. As an added bonus, the leftover water can be used in soup broth. "I really prefer blanching (boiling followed by a plunge into cold water to stop the cooking process) over steaming because the food tastes better," Richmond says.
Beth Ginsberg, co-founder with Richmond of the Los Angeles-based organic takeout food company Eaturna, steams artichokes for 20 minutes and then stuffs them with heirloom tomatoes sautéed in olive oil and garlic. "You could also add steamed shrimp for protein," she says.
Ginsberg recommends steaming asparagus for two minutes, chilling it and then drizzling it with truffle oil, sea salt, cracked black pepper and Parmesan cheese. Or make a salad with spring greens and top it with asparagus and caramelized shallots drizzled with mandarin orange olive oil. Richmond likes asparagus grilled with olive oil and lemon juice, or roasted in the oven and then wrapped in thinly sliced tenderloin. Another option is to blanch asparagus for 20 seconds and use it as a crudite, with a dip made from sautéed leeks, shallots and crème fraiche.
Jacobi's favorite recipe for asparagus comes from northern Italy. Stalks of asparagus are steamed and then topped with a fried egg, a drizzle of butter and Parmesan cheese. "The yolk of the egg makes a great sauce for the asparagus," she says.
Richmond loves leeks because "they've got great flavor, they're easy to cook, easy to chop and they don't make you cry like onions do." Ginsberg points out that because leeks tend to separate into vertical layers, they're a natural for julienning. "You can sauté julienned leeks until they're like a vegetable noodle," she says. She adds sautéed fennel, carrots and celery to the leek noodles and pours the mixture over seared or grilled fish.
Jacobi likes to poach leeks—"just the white and an inch of the green"—in chicken or vegetable broth with a little butter, then bake until tender. "You can serve it at room temperature as a light first course, or chilled, instead of a salad," she says.
Normally, Jacobi recommends peeling the skin off each individual fava bean to prevent toughness, but she makes an exception for the tender, baby spring favas. She uses them in a Sicilian recipe called fratella—peas, baby artichokes, onions and fava beans sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with chopped mint.
Richmond is fond of sautéed leeks, fava beans and asparagus tossed with spelt spaghetti, black pepper, garlic and shallots. "That's a perfect spring pasta," she says. Ginsberg purees fava beans with olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese and spreads the mixture on pita toast.
Peas Spring peas are so tender, "the more briefly they're cooked, the better," Jacobi says. She recommends boiling peas for 30 seconds and then plunging them in cold water. Then sauté them with orange juice and a little butter until they're warmed through.
Peas are good raw in salads, risotto, couscous or red quinoa, Richmond says. Ginsberg likes to steam them with soybeans and add seared mushrooms. "Top the mixture with a light Caesar dressing and serve it chilled as a salad," she says.
Morel mushrooms "You only have to use just a little bit of morels, or mix them with other mushrooms, because they have such a great flavor," Richmond says. One of her favorite recipes for morels is in an omelet or frittata, along with goat cheese and sautéed leeks and asparagus.
Ginsberg likes to make a sauce of sautéed morels and shallots, Madeira wine and chicken stock. "It's a lovely, smoky flavor that's good over seared halibut," she says.
Chard, kale, sorrel and mustard are common spring greens, but that doesn't mean they're popular. "A lot of people are kind of scared of spring greens," says Mark Mulcahy, The Natural Foods Merchandiser columnist and owner of Glen Ellen, Calif.-based Organic Options consulting firm. He recommends starting customers out with the sweeter and more tender greens, such as chard and spinach, and then moving up to stronger-tasting greens like kale, mustard and turnip.
"You can cook up spring greens with a pot of pinto beans and put them in a burrito," Mulcahy says. "It's an easy way to start to get people to eat the stuff."
Jacobi likes to simmer sorrel with chicken or vegetable broth, puree the mixture and use it as a sauce for salmon. Another of her favorite salmon toppings is Boston, or butter, lettuce chopped and sautéed with butter, green peas and shallots.
"I think a lot of people forget that you can just slice up radishes and add them to a salad," Jacobi says. Another option is to cook radishes in ume, a pink vinegar that "turns the radish pink on the inside as well as the outside," she says. Mulcahy likes radishes with a slice of dark rye bread and goat cheese.
The key to good turnip preparation is choosing the right variety. Mulcahy likes sweet baby turnips, and Jacobi opts for Japanese white turnips, which she says are smaller, sweeter, more tender and have "less funky root flavor" than traditional turnips. An added advantage is that they don't have to be peeled. Jacobi boils turnips and then "finishes" them with ginger and apple cider vinegar, creating a sweet and sour taste sensation.
Traditionally, the main use for rhubarb is to stew it and combine it with other fruits in pies or preserves. Jacobi says many people grow up hating rhubarb because it's stringy. "What they don't understand is unless you have very thin, young stalks, rhubarb needs to be peeled. That gets rid of the skin and stringy parts." Others are turned off by rhubarb because it takes so much sugar to make it palatable. But Jacobi says traditional recipes call for too much sugar. "It used to be one pound of rhubarb with one cup of sugar," she says. "But that's sickeningly sweet for today's tastes. You can cut it to a half cup or three-quarters cup of sugar."
Rhubarb can also be used in savory recipes. Jacobi likes to cook a couple thinly sliced rhubarb stalks with carrots, onions, shallots, white wine, chicken broth and "a little butter for body." Puree the mixture, and it becomes a sauce for salmon. "It cuts the richness of the salmon very nicely," she says.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 4/p. 24