There’s no hunger quite like the craving for spring. I see that the season has arrived not by a date on the calendar. It’s only when the daylight has lengthened and the ground has warmed enough to produce the first fiddleheads that I know it’s really spring.
Like all young things, there’s an unspoiled tenderness to spring’s bounty. And like youth, it fades far too quickly. Some spring veggies—like baby carrots (not the pre-washed, finger-sized, peeled baby carrots) and new potatoes—continue to be available later in the year in their more mature form. Others, such as ramps and English peas, make an appearance only for a short time before disappearing for another year.
A few of my favorite short-lived and not-to-be-missed spring vegetables are below. Keep in mind that chefs take a lighter touch with spring veggies. To make sure you don’t overwhelm their subtle flavor and delicate texture, stick to shorter cooking times, lighter sauces and gentle seasoning.
Fiddleheads are tightly coiled, edible ferns that eventually become pretty green ferns that no one eats. They have a woody-grassy flavor similar to asparagus or green beans. They last only 2 days in the fridge, so use them as soon as you get them. Snip off an inch from the bottom and simmer, steam or sauté in olive oil and top with lemon.
Ramps are wild onions. Both the greens and the bulb can be eaten and taste like a cross between garlic and leeks. Ramps are always foraged, so they can be hard to find. If you see them at a farmer’s market, grab them. Just beware—they’re pungent, so tread carefully if you’re using them raw. They can stand in for leeks, scallions or onions in any dish.
Fava beans are a bit of a tease. You’ll only find them fresh in the pod from spring to early summer. When you do get your hands on them, they need to be shelled twice—once from their pod and again from the tough skin surrounding each bean. But it’s worth it. With their nutty flavor and meaty texture, fava beans are can be sautéed and tossed into pasta, mashed, or pureed into a dip and served on crostini.
English peas, or what the French call petit pois, are small bright, green peas with sweet taste and crunchy texture. Peas begin converting their sugar to starch as soon as they’re picked, so buy them as fresh as possible and use them quickly. In their pod, they’ll keep in the fridge for 2 days. Blanch quickly and add them to salads or simmer and puree them into a spring soup.
Rhubarb is the first fruit of spring. The only edible part is the vibrant, cherry-colored stalks (the leaves contain oxalic acid, which is mildly toxic) and it’s almost always served cooked. The flavor is intensely tart, so you’ll find it commonly stewed into compotes, sauces or jams using a fair amount of sugar or maple syrup. Rhubarb pairs beautifully with strawberries or ginger and adds a zing to cakes and baked goods.
Other favorite fruits and veggies also pop up in springtime. Head to the farmer’s market or your local grocer for asparagus, strawberries, artichokes, baby lettuces and radishes.
Need some inspiration to celebrate spring? This Olive Oil Cake with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote shows off the season's best.