For us foodies, few things herald the coming of spring like the arrival of the seasonís first vegetables. Asparagus, watercress, garden peas, fresh herbs–they emerge, tentative and wistful, tender and bright as our hopes after winterís long slumber. More refined than squash and heavy root vegetables, with the irresistible blossom of youth, they inspire us toward all manner of flings.
We start the season by moving a table into the back yard, cover it with a colorful cloth and a Mason jar of fresh flowers, put on some lighthearted music and invite a handful of friends over for an impromptu spring feast. Or pack a festive picnic and take it on the road. Start with a roomy wicker basket, and load it up with easy-to-transport foods that celebrate spring: steamed asparagus with basil aioli for dipping, tangy watercress salads, boiled new potatoes tossed with fresh basil and olive oil. Round out your meal with whole-grain breads, organic cheeses, fresh fruit and a selection of festive beverages: sparkling water with pomegranate juice, iced herbal teas, apple cider or champagne are good choices.
Ready for a fling of your own? Celebrate the season with these easy-to-make dishes that highlight springís tender best.
Spring Vegetables with Quinoa and Lemon-Mint Butter
2 cups quinoa
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 leek, washed well and thinly sliced (white part only)
1 pound sugar snap peas
1 small red pepper, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise
2 cups baby spinach leaves
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
2 tablespoons butter
1. Bring 3 cups of lightly salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add quinoa, reduce heat, cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until just tender. Remove from heat and transfer quinoa to a plate to cool.
2. While quinoa is cooking, in a large skillet, heat olive oil and saut» leeks until just tender, about 1 minute. Add sugar snap peas and red pepper, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes longer, until vegetables are crisp-tender.
3. Add spinach, lemon juice, mint and butter, and cook, stirring, until butter is melted and spinach is just wilted. Add cous cous and toss to mix. Season with salt and pepper, and serve hot.
Watercress Salad with Mango, Papaya and Spiced Pecans
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 cup pecans
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 small limes
1 to 2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup coconut milk
1 bunch watercress, trimmed
3 cups baby spinach or arugula
1 medium papaya, seeded, peeled and cubed
1 cup diced jicama
1.† Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2.† Melt coconut oil over low heat in a small skillet. Stir in spices and pecans, and cook over low heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until pecans are lightly toasted.
3.† While pecans are cooking make dressing, squeeze lime into a small bowl, removing seeds. Whisk in honey, to taste. Whisk in coconut milk, season with salt and white pepper, and set aside.
4.† Combine watercress, spinach or arugula, papaya and jicama in a medium bowl; drizzle with just enough dressing to lightly coat, and toss to mix. Store extra dressing in a glass container. Divide salad among four individual plates. Top with pecans and serve.
Asparagus, Watercress and Chickpea Salad
1 pound asparagus
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice from 1/2 large lemon
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh basil
1 small bunch watercress, stems removed and discarded
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas
2 cups chopped baby spinach leaves
1 cup small grape tomatoes
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
Ricotta salata cheese (optional)
1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Fill a medium bowl with ice and cold water. Cut asparagus on the diagonal into 1/8-inch thick slices. Blanch in boiling salted water for 2 minutes, then immediately transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water. Let cool, then drain.
2. While asparagus is blanching, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice and basil in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
3. Add asparagus, watercress, chickpeas, spinach, tomatoes and onion to bowl. Toss to mix, and season with salt and pepper.
4. To serve, divide salad among four plates. Top with ricotta salata, if desired, and serve immediately.
Garden Pea and Sweet Corn Soup
4 large ears fresh corn, shucked
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small bunch green onions or scallions, finely chopped (white and some pale green)
3 cups shelled garden peas (substitute frozen peas, thawed to room temperature)
3 cups vegetable stock
1 cup snow pea pods
8 large basil leaves
Fresh edible flowers, such as violas, pansies or nasturtiums, for garnish (optional)
1. Remove husks from corn and discard. Using a sharp knife, cut kernels from one ear of corn and transfer kernels to a medium bowl. After kernels have been removed, hold the cob over the bowl and scrape a butter knife down the cob from top to bottom to extract the juices. Discard cob, and repeat with remaining ears of corn.
2. Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat and cook onions until just tender, 3† to 5 minutes. Add peas, corn and stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 to 3† minutes, until peas are just tender.† (If using frozen peas, cook corn and stock for 2 to 3 minutes, then stir in peas and heat through.)
3. While soup is cooking, trim snow peas and cut on a strong diagonal into very thin (1/8-inch) strips. Stack basil leaves and cut crosswise into very thin strips.
4. Transfer soup to a food processor and process until smooth. Return to pot, add snow peas, and cook on low until snow peas are just softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper.
5. To serve, divide soup between individual serving bowls, scatter with fresh flowers, if desired, and serve.