TURN ON THE LIGHT
After months of winter root vegetables and frozen veggies, spring is a time to indulge in delicate, light produce just beginning to pop out of the ground. When farmers markets are bursting with a new assortment of colors and shapes, it's easy to try something unfamiliar in the kitchen, be it a new vegetable, a new recipe, or a new cooking method. Building menus around seasonal produce is a healthy way to support local agriculture, nourish the body, and eat well on a budget. These 30 ingredients are cheap and fresh during springtime.
It wouldn't feel like spring without an abundance of peas. Green peas are actually the underripe seeds of a pod that, if left to mature, would turn into beans. The convention of harvesting and consuming them early, while still full of sweet earthy flavor, began as far back as the Roman empire. Use them to add flavorful bulk to pastas and soups, or feature them as a side dish seasoned with fresh herbs or a touch of oil, butter, and lemon. Harvest to Table has a guide to perfectly cooking fresh spring peas.
This ancient Mediterranean vegetable is related to the artichoke, but its flavor is in the edible, leafy stem rather than oversize buds. The celery-like stems were popular in ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia and common in colonial America. It's a high-yield vegetable that's easy to cultivate, so it's likely to be inexpensive at the local market if available. Cardoons are delicious braised with white wine, sautéed with garlic, or fried and served with tomato sauce. Food & Wine has a recipe for golden fried cardoon.
Out-of-season asparagus tends to be tough, overly fibrous, and overpriced. When fresh, though, the delicious spears need little preparation. Tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper, charred briefly on a grill, and dressed with a squeeze of lemon, they are simple and sublime. Use them in place of meat in sandwiches, as a pizza topping, or in a French-style omelet to appreciate their delicate flavor.
Ramps are a variety of wild onion harvested while the bulbs are still small and tender and the leafy shoots are still sweet and earthy. While many associate ramps with expensive specials at fine-dining restaurants, they can be harvested in rural areas for free and found at farmers markets for low prices. The flavor is delicate and best appreciated when the ramps are lightly grilled or sautéed and tossed into rice or pasta dishes, or used as a seasonal pizza topping. Serious Eats has some savory ideas for preparing ramps.
This pungent green was a popular herb in ancient Rome. Today it has become a favorite for salads and sandwiches, and for topping other dishes. The difference in depth of flavor between pre-washed and packaged baby arugula from the supermarket and fully mature greenmarket arugula is significant and worth experiencing. Washing a leafy bunch involves merely submerging the leaves in a deep bowl of cold water and letting the grit fall to the bottom. Once the leaves air dry, they are ready to be tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and devoured.
New potatoes are harvested early, so they have a thin skin and are generally smaller than the average store-bought baking potato. They are particularly well-suited to leaving whole or halved for chunky potato salads -- such as a sophisticated but simple new potato salad from Epicurious -- or buttered and salted as a side dish. These slightly sweeter potatoes offer more nutrition, because the skins (with their extra fiber and nutrients) are tender enough to eat.
SUGAR SNAP PEAS
Sweet as candy with a satisfying crunch, sugar snap peas are available in large, inexpensive mounds during the spring. These vegetables originated as a cross between traditional hard-shell peas and a Chinese snow pea a few hundred years ago. Out of season, they are wrinkled and limp, and often have a bitter taste. At their peak, they are best enjoyed raw as a snack, on a crudité platter, or sliced thin and added to salads and noodle dishes.
These adorable little bulbs are the spiral version of the fern before it opens and are available for just a week or two each year. After a quick blanch or sauté, they are tender with a subtle, earthy flavor. Toss them into a pasta dish, such as traditional pasta salad, or look to Allrecipes for a fast, low-calorie recipe for fiddleheads sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
This extra-sweet variety of onion has a legally protected origin and can come only from the state of Georgia, much like the sparkling wine Champagne can come only from the Champagne region of France. Despite their year-round availability, onions are sensitive crops and change dramatically based on sunlight exposure. The most desired variety of Vidalia is available only during spring and summer. The Vidalia Onion Committee has plenty of recipe ideas that pair the vegetable with everything from bacon to fruit. There are even dessert recipes, including a Vidalia onion chocolate chip cookie.
This leafy green has made a comeback on culinary scenes worldwide. Grown all over the world, it is a unique and pungent herb with a tannic, sour flavor. The leaves can be used raw in salads or anywhere an herb would be used to add lemony tang. It is also common to use sorrel in cooked dishes such as soups, stews, and sauces. The unique flavor is a great starting point for creativity. The Kitchn has some recipes to get the juices flowing.
Fresh spinach has a strong flavor and soft, almost spongy texture, unlike many of the pre-packed versions available year-round. Indulge in green smoothies and spinach salads throughout the spring. To get the most out of the season, buy and use fresh spinach frequently, because bunches tend to wilt quickly. Be sure to wash the leaves thoroughly by submerging in a bowl of cold water before using in a favorite recipe; there are plenty online from outlets such as Cooking Light and Bon Appétit.
Scallions are gentle members of the onion family that add a pop of flavor without any harshness on the palate or sting in the eyes. A Serious Eats recipe for scallion pancakes at uses the green part of the scallions for color and flavor. The white parts can be used in the same way or saved as scraps for homemade ramen broth.
These sweet cousins of onions have none of the spicy characteristics of onions, just their sweet undertones. In season, they are abundant and inexpensive, encouraging a big batch of shallot vinaigrette, like a mustardy one from The New York Times, to use on springtime leafy greens.
Generally used as a fruit, this vegetable looks like red celery stalks and starts to appear in farmers markets in early spring. It's tough and sour and needs to be cooked to soften it and mixed with considerable sugar. While strawberry rhubarb pies and jams will never go out of fashion, using rhubarb in savory recipes is becoming popular. Check out some ideas from The Kitchn for mixing it up.
Beets are polarizing root vegetables: Some folks love them, and some hate them. For those in the former group, tender spring beets are a real treat. The spring crop of sweet and earthy beets is ideal for using in salads, shaved raw, or lightly boiled until just cooked through, to unleash their extra hearty flavor.
Store-bought celery is totally different from market-fresh celery, which tends to have a much more concentrated flavor. Market celery also tends to have more leafy greens at the top, which can do double duty as a pungent herb in salads or as a garnish on plates. Be sure to save the ends and top trimmings for a homemade-stock scrap bag.
Out of season, artichokes are quite expensive, which means they are a delicacy best enjoyed fresh from a local market. Learning how to clean and prepare them yourself will allow you to buy them whole, which is significantly cheaper than buying them pre-cleaned. It may take a few rounds of practice, but the technique is easily learned by any home cook.
This Asian vegetable has a crunchy stem and leafy greens that wilt like spinach when cooked. Its mild flavor works well with almost any seasoning, from simple garlic and oil to pungent soy, chili, and ginger. Usually sold by the bag for just a few dollars, it's one of the cheapest ways to get plant-based calcium into your diet.
Fennel has worked its way from an obscure Italian ingredient to a favorite in many Americans' diets. It is incredibly versatile -- beloved for its crunch and spicy, almost licorice-like flavor when raw and its sweet, caramelized flavor when cooked. Using fennel in season is a fun way to experiment in the kitchen, with a recipe such as pork scaloppine with fennel salsa verde from Bon Appétit.
Essentially baby garlic, green garlic comes to market in early spring, when the bulb is just beginning to form. It has a slightly less spicy flavor than regular garlic and can be eaten raw. When cooked, it takes on a mild sweetness similar to garlic. Tasting Table has a recipe for a simple green-garlic purée that can be used on everything from grilled meats to roasted vegetables.
Dried and store-bought herbs always seem more stemmy and less flavorful than fresh spring and summer herbs. Once fresh herbs are back at the market, it is time to celebrate by incorporating them into salads, sauces, pasta dishes, and basically everything else. Store them in water, like fresh flowers, to keep them fresh and get the most out of each bunch.
This sweet variety of onion is mild and develops a silky, melt-in-your-mouth texture when cooked. At their cheapest and most tender in spring, they add a lot of flavor for a small price. Let them shine on their own by grilling them and serving them with flaky sea salt, or use them as a condiment on anything from burgers and hot dogs to baked potatoes and steaks.
Nettles have been used as a medicinal plant for centuries. It's a happy coincidence that nettles are a remedy for allergies, which tend to flare up in spring, nettles' natural season. The Kitchn has a guide to prepping and storing them for best results.
There are so many lettuces to enjoy when the temperatures start to rise, bringing a welcome change of pace from store-bought romaine hearts, mesclun mix, baby arugula, and iceberg. Feel free to go a little crazy while prices are low and try out lettuces like cress, dandelion, and mizuna to add diversity to spring salads.
Chicory is a bitter green that can be enjoyed fresh or cooked. Many people are familiar with chicory root in its dried and roasted form, which is added to coffee in the New Orleans style, but it's tasty in fresh leafy form, too. Common leaf chicories include radicchio and escarole. They offer a ton of vitamins and minerals and help keep the gastrointestinal tract clean and healthy. Clean Eating explains how to store and prepare chicory.
This broccoli relative is also known as rapini and features more leafy bits and smaller, more tender stems than traditional broccoli. The earthy and bitter flavor is usually paired with bright lemon, Parmesan cheese, or salty sausage for a fun contrast. Super-healthy and inexpensive in spring, it can be a go-to green for a macrobiotic diet.
CHARD AND KALE
Almost everyone could stand to eat more leafy greens, and there's no better time than spring. Both kale and chard can be used raw and cooked. Raw chard is crisp yet tender, though if using raw kale, consider massaging it to break down some of the fibers and make it more tender. To make the most of each purchase, wash and dry the greens when you get them home and store in a damp towel in the crisper drawer until ready to use.
These bitter and crunchy bundles of leaves are a favorite among hosts who love to put out finger foods, thanks to their natural boat-like shape. Out of season, they can be too pricey to include on a menu, so take advantage while they are fresh and cheap and let the hors d'oeuvres roll.
Fava beans are a particularly meaty bean, with many uses, such as puréeing into a sauce, tossing whole into pasta and soups, or simply enjoying by the bowlful with basic seasoning. The flavor of canned or frozen favas does not compare to fresh, so take advantage when they are in season. Epicurious provides a basic guide on how to prepare them.
Collard greens have a reputation for being overcooked and saturated with other flavors. That's because, out of their peak season, they are tough and flavorless. When fresh, they are tender, earthy, and sweet, with just enough strength to be used for wraps. Try using them in place of tortillas after removing the tough stem for a plant-based boost of nutrition.