What to Eat Now: April
With its bounty of ramps and rhubarb, morels and asparagus, and sweet garden peas, April showers us with some of the year's rarest and most fleeting delicacies.
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In April, early spring vegetables start popping up at markets across the U.S., letting us know that the long winter has finally come to an end. This time of year is notable for some of the more unusual farmers-market finds, including wild-foraged delicacies such as ramps and morels. A pair of "mainstream" veggies join them just in time for Passover and Easter: tender green peas and fresh asparagus. Of course, all of these seasonal treats go so well together that you'll see many of them mingling together in the recipes below. Join the party, and welcome spring!
While asparagus is generally available year-round in the grocery store, once you've tried some local, garden-fresh asparagus in the spring, you'll see why veggie fanatics get so excited about it. Why's that? It's primarily an issue of freshness: Asparagus spears start to lose flavor as soon as they're cut, so fresh is definitely best.
Asparagus comes in three colorways: green, white, and purple-tinged. Unlike green asparagus (which is allowed to grow in the sun), white asparagus is grown with soil mounded around it to protect it from the sun and block the development of chlorophyll, while the purple-tinged varieties are grown partially underground. Keep this in mind if you're looking for health benefits: The more sun asparagus gets, the greater the amount of vitamin C it contains.
From farm to fridge
When buying, look for straight spears with tightly closed tips and no dark spots or other discoloration. The size of asparagus can range from as thick as a thumb to skinnier than a pencil — both are tasty in their own right, so the size you choose is just a matter of personal preference. Once purchased, store in the fridge wrapped in a damp paper towel or an open plastic bag.
When ready to cook, cut or break off the bottom end of each spear. For thin spears, you can simply bend them until they snap, leaving just the tender upper part. Large, thick spears may have tough skin (particularly at the bottom) that you can peel off if you like. Generally speaking, there's no need to peel green asparagus, though; If you do choose to peel the stalk, just peel the bottom third. White asparagus, on the other hand, is traditionally peeled from top to bottom. Don't want to waste the peels? You can make a quick stock by cooking the peels in water, then use the liquid to flavor soup or cook the remaining spears.
Combos to try
Once prepped, asparagus can be cooked in many ways: It can be steamed, roasted in the oven with sea salt and olive oil, grilled, or shaved to be served raw in salads (a popular trend in upscale farm-to-table restaurants). Asparagus pairs naturally with butter and other spring greens like fava beans, green garlic, leeks, garlic scapes, scallions, and peas. It's also delightful with salty cheeses such as parmesan, pecorino, or Taleggio, or perhaps a tangy goat cheese — for a classic gilding of the lily, serve with a perfect poached egg on top. For a meatier-tasting preparation, use asparagus in recipes with ham, bacon, or mushrooms; any of these ingredients would make excellent additions to the quiche recipe included below.
Common peas go by many different names, including English peas, garden peas, sweet peas, shelling peas, and pod peas. Peas have a long history in cuisines around the globe, and continue to be a power food for today's diets. High in fiber, low in sugar, and with plenty of protein and vitamins, there's a reason the pea has endured. They're easy to store, but to enjoy the sweet flavor that only the freshest pea can provide, you'll need to hurry: Once the pea harvest begins, they'll produce for about six weeks, so you've only got a month and a half to find and enjoy these spring luxuries.
At the market
Look for peas that are green, plump, and not dry, but avoid particularly large peas, which can be starchy and lack flavor. Sweeter "petit peas" — more often seen in the freezer than the produce aisle — are in fact a separate variety of pea, not a baby version of common peas. All types of peas can quickly become starchy, so eat them as soon as possible after buying (within a few days at most). And be sure to ask your farmer what you're buying (or look for a sign) before you start filling up your sack with pods — it's easy to get garden peas confused with snap peas.
In the pot
Unlike sugar snap peas or snow peas, the shell of the common pea is usually thrown out, not eaten (thus the name "shelling peas"). To shuck a pea, find the string on the side and pull down to open the pod (like undoing a zipper!), then pop out the peas with your finger. Next, quickly blanch the peas in boiling water for 30 seconds. Serve them right away with a pat of butter or, if using in another recipe, put the blanched peas in ice water to stop them from cooking further.
Once shelled, peas freeze very well; in fact, peas are one vegetable that is a-ok to buy frozen if you can't find them fresh. But remember, store-bought frozen peas have already been blanched, so take care not to overcook them; all you need to do is heat them up.
Pea lovers will tell you that the very best peas are eaten raw straight out of the pod (preferably while standing in the garden where they grow), or simply blanched and served with some butter and sea salt. However, they're also great combined with lemon, cream-based sauces, ricotta, and, of course, all the other vegetables in this month's roundup.
Rhubarb is a common vegetable with an uncommon flavor. And yes, it's a vegetable, not a fruit! From the knotgrass family, rhubarb (along with its close relative, sorrel) is known for its distinctive sour taste. Tart, tangy, and acidic, rhubarb recipes typically call for quite a bit of sugar to balance the veggie's naturally sour flavor.
Red and green: It's not just for Christmas
There are two main types of rhubarb: the more common red-stalked rhubarb and an extra-sour all-green rhubarb. Word to the wise: if you're looking for a milder taste, go for the reddest stalks you can find. If you do see green stalks at the market, remember that their color doesn't have anything to do with ripeness; this variety will never turn red, no matter how long it grows. For both types, choose rhubarb with firm, unblemished stalks. Store your purchase in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel to keep the stalks from drying out. Preparation is easy: Just rinse to remove any dirt, remove the leaves and trim the ends, then chop the stalks as directed in your recipe.
Is Rhubarb Poisonous?
Quick answer: not the part we eat! The eye-poppingly large green leaves at the top, however, aren't edible; the leaves are poisonous if eaten, and should be removed before preparing if not already removed when purchased.
Rhubarb softens quickly during cooking, making it suitable for an applesauce-style side or a tangy spread for your morning toast. Its color will also become more subdued when cooked, turning a gentle pink. Taste as you go when cooking; some stalks of rhubarb are less tart than others, so you want to start with a small amount of sweetener and add until the balance of sweet and tart is just right.
A fruitful friend
Rhubarb is most frequently combined with strawberries, which come into season around the same time as field-grown rhubarb. Unlike many of the other items on this list, however, rhubarb does have a long growing season, and you should be able to enjoy it straight through to the fall. So don't limit yourself to strawberries when looking for a companion fruit for your rhubarb — it works well with many other fruits, such as apples, stone fruits, raspberries, and blackberries. Often used in dessert recipes, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and vanilla are natural complements to zingy rhubarb.
You'll typically find fresh fava beans (aka broad beans or, less commonly, "faba beans") in farmer's markets, where they make a brief appearance in the spring. Their flavor is buttery and green, closer to the taste of edamame than, say, a lima bean. The beans, not the pods, are the delicacy here, and you'll have to do a bit of work to get to them: once freed from the pod, the beans themselves need to be peeled. While this two-step process can be time-consuming, the reward inside is worth the effort!
Picking your pods
Fava beans are easily distinguishable in markets by their large, bumpy pods, often thicker and longer than a man's fingers. It's not uncommon to see little black bumps on the shells; a few spots here and there are perfectly normal, but too many can indicate that they're overripe. Firm, bright green beans will give you the best flavor. When overripe or stored for too long of a time, favas will become starchy — so buy them fresh and eat them up soon! They're best stored in a paper bag in the refrigerator as they can retain too much moisture if kept in a plastic bag.
Two-step prep (#freethefava)
To prepare, first shell the beans the same way you would a common pea: Pull the string on the side and pop the beans out of the shell. Next, blanch the beans by dropping them in boiling water for about a minute, then run them under cold water or scoop them into an ice bath to stop them from cooking. This process will make things easier during the second step: removing the skin from the blanched beans. When cool enough to handle, simply peel off the outer layer of skin to reveal the bright green treasures inside. Very young fava beans can be eaten without removing their skins — and in some cultures are left on regardless of age — but the exterior pods are not typically eaten.
Feasting on favas
Once the beans are free, they're typically boiled and served whole in salads, pastas, or mixed vegetable sides. Favas can also be sauteed in butter as a simple topping for toast, or mashed to make a delightful green spread (I tend to prefer a loose mash to a whipped puree; try both and see what you like best!). One of my favorite preparations (albeit messy to eat) is to grill the pods whole. This does put the onus on your guests to then pop them open and, if they choose, remove the beans from the skin ... but I like to think of it as a communal party activity. Much like a clam bake or BBQ, preparing fava beans this way makes for a hands-on feast for enthusiastic (and unselfconscious) eaters. Fava beans pair well with other bright spring-like flavors and simple, fresh ingredients like pasta and butter with mushrooms, spring alliums, and a touch of citrus.
Ramps, a rare type of wild leek, look similar to scallions, but with flat, wide leaves. They're famous for their strong flavor (and smell!) with a taste that's a little bit onion, a little bit garlic — and all rock 'n' roll. Small ramps have little bulbs that appear almost straight (again, like a scallion); as they get older, they'll become more bulbous. Older ramps are great for pickling and are no less of a precious find.
Ramps are wild, not cultivated, growing primarily on the East Coast and Midwest, so they can be harder to find in other parts of the country. If you're lucky enough to come across ramps in the market, store them in the fridge in an opened plastic bag for up to a week — if you can live with the smell for that long!
Ramp it up!
To prepare ramps, remove the outer layer and cut off the root. Separate the leaves from the stalk and rinse in cold water several times to remove any persistent bits of dirt that like to collect in the tight layers that make up the stalk. Slice the stalk and bulb, then stack the leaves on top of each other and chop.
Some dishes call for using just the greens; others the bulb. All parts of the ramp are edible, so save any parts you don't use for another recipe — don't waste a bit of this rare treat! Similar to asparagus, you can use the roots to make a wonderfully flavorful stock to use in your cooking later on.
Ramps are best when grilled or quickly sauteed — be careful not to overcook your ramps, as they lose flavor quickly over heat. You can also use ramps in uncooked preparations: make a quick pesto (which can then be frozen to savor the flavor year-round), swap it out for the parsley in a chimichurri, or use it as a bold substitute for other recipes using leeks.
Morel mushrooms are known equally for their sponge-like appearance, unique meaty flavor, and their cult-like following. Followers of this fungi will doggedly hunt them down in markets and woods, guarding the knowledge of their whereabouts like a secret barbecue sauce ingredient. Because morels can't be cultivated (and therefore can only be found in the wild), they are a bit harder for us non-sporting types to find — and they have a price tag that reflects this scarcity. Their growing season is somewhat short as well, so do jump on them immediately if you see them fresh.
Working With Dried Mushrooms
Fortunately, many recipes use dried morels, making it much easier for home cooks to find the prized ingredient for a decadent feast. Dried morels can be bought online from reputable sellers such as Far West Fungi. And don't worry, rehydrating mushrooms isn't hard or time-consuming! Just rinse and soak the dried morels in cold water for 2 minutes, shaking gently to remove any dirt that's collected in the crevices. Then, soak them in a clean bowl of hot water for about 10 minutes or until soft. Save the flavorful second soaking liquid to use in stocks or to flavor your pan sauce — just give it a quick pass through a strainer before using.
If you do find fresh morels, they'll need to be cleaned well, as they're often gritty, particularly early on in the season. Like all mushrooms, morels are best kept refrigerated in a paper bag.
If you've gone through the trouble of seeking out morels, be sure to use them in recipes where they get to be the star of the show! Morels are near transcendent in a cream sauce on toast, sauteed with butter, or mixed with fresh pasta. Check out some of the best morel recipes on Yummly here:
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Check out other articles in our monthly fresh produce series.