Spring, as my Uncle Dickie of New Hampshire used to say, is "capitol eating time".
And with winter temperatures finally starting to abate in many areas across the country, your local farmers markets is the best place to suss out some inspiring fresh spring produce to add to your basket.
(That is, of course, unless you happen to be a vegetable farmer yourself. Then just step outside.)
Seasonal food shopping is more than just a tasty no-brainer, it's a gift from nature: fruits and vegetables picked locally and eaten at their peak have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants coursing through them than those picked before they’re ready and shipped thousands of miles.
In fact, prematurely harvested produce can lose up to 75 percent of their vitamin and health potency after just one week on the road and/or sitting on grocery shelves. So while specific crops and harvest dates depend on where in the world you currently hang your hat, try and get your hands on the following vegetable trio that offer peak flavor – and unique health benefits -- at this time of the year:
First brought to Louisiana in the 19th century by French immigrants, and onwards to California by Spanish immigrants (the state which now provides nearly 100% of the U.S. crop), this often intimidating vegetable enjoys its main harvest in the spring when the thistles are at their largest. Low in calories, high in fiber, and rich in a number of key antioxidants, look for artichokes that have tight, compact leaves and fresh-cut stem ends.
Since these delectable, large headed, unique green monsters stand up to heat and char quite well, what better way to ring in the spring season by firing up your grill as well?
Originally brought to these shores by colonists, beets quickly became a mainstay in U.S. gardens by the early 1800’s. George Washington himself experimented with them at Mount Vernon, and by the late 1880s, Philadelphia’s Burpee seed company offered twelve popular varieties. Rich in minerals such as magnesium and potassium, this colorful root vegetable contains powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients that can help protect against certain cancers, especially colon.
When choosing the freshest beets, look for small, firm, well-rounded bulbs sporting unblemished deep red (or golden yellow) skins that are smooth to the touch. Bright, crisp greens on top are nature’s way of saying “Pick me! I’m fresh!”, as are thin taproots extending from the bulbs.
In terms of preparation, yes, your hands will temporarily turn beet red. But please, don’t let that deter you... although you may wish to avoid making jokes with impressionable small children until you’re done.
The unrivaled royalty of early spring vegetables, asparagus is another vegetable packed to the hilt with health-promoting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients that can help decrease blood pressure and control cholesterol levels. California leads the way in producing most of the U.S. crop, with Washington State and Michigan also in the game.
Choose spears with bright green stalks and purple-tinted tips; since asparagus does not store well, try to buy and eat these jolly giants the same day, if possible.
SCIENCE TIME-OUT: Since white and green asparagus come from the same plant, what explains the difference in color? Simple: white asparagus is grown underground. Growers cover the spears in dirt (or other sun blocking apparatus) so they’re not exposed to light. Which prevents the production of chlorophyll. Which as you know -- if you were listening to your high-school science teacher instead of passing notes to Cindy Larson, that is (Hi, Cindy!) -- would turn them green.
Cooking-wise, the well-crafted dish is all in the tenderness: green asparagus is best tender-crisp (whether grilled or boiled), while the more delicate and mild white asparagus benefits from full boiling and uber-tenderness. And hollandaise sauce. And a crisp white wine. And Barry White.
That said, if your market only stocks the green variety, try this simple and delicious recipe instead. (Even Barry White would approve.)