Cooking with Spring Vegetables

Q San Francisco
May 2002
Pages 46-47

Cooking with Spring Vegetables

Vegetables are the Elaine Stritch of the food world – delightfully crunchy raw, but even better when just a bit fried. When spring arrives, the markets fill with a riot of colorful gems from local farmers. Where meat basically covers a color palate that runs from white through pink to red, vegetables provide a kaleidoscope of possibilities.

Beyond the rainbow visual effects, vegetables also give new meaning to depth of flavor. Cooking method has a radical impact on the final flavors of the simplest veggies. Quick methods lock in bright, fresh flavors, while slow cooking draws out complex, intense tastes. Mixing very different vegetables together creates surprising harmonies, proving that the sum of parts is indeed greater than the whole.

Fava beans, English peas, white eggplant, Vidalia onions, radishes, fennel, squash blossoms, rhubarb, fiddlehead ferns and ramps. These are few of my favorite spring things. Being from Michigan though, for me the two things that signal our return to warmth and sunshine are asparagus and morel mushrooms.

asparagustipsAsparagus Custard with Morel & Spring Onion Sauce

6 stalks trimmed asparagus stems (reserve tips)
2 teaspoons chervil
½ teaspoon finely chopped garlic
14 ounces heavy cream
4 eggs
salt & white pepper

Simmer the cream with the garlic, allowing to reduce by one quarter. Finely slice the asparagus stems and boil in water until just soft (2-3 minutes). Drain. Blanch the asparagus tips separately, remove and set aside. Puree with the garlic cream and chervil until very smooth. Allow to cool slightly. Beat eggs and combine with puree. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into custard molds and bake in a water bath at 325 degrees until just set. Allow to rest in the water bath for 5 minutes to firm and then unmold onto plates.

1 vidalia onion
6 ramps (baby wild leeks)
1 small bundle fresh chives
1 small carrot
1 sweet yellow bell pepper
1 cup heavy cream
½ pound fresh morels
2 teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon chervil
salt & white pepper

Finely chop the three types of onion, carrot and pepper. Add to cream with a little salt and cook very slowly over low heat until reduced by one-third. Strain, pressing on vegetables to draw out all flavor. Saute the morels in butter with salt and white pepper. Add to cream and simmer for five more minutes. Pool the sauce around the custards and garnish each custard with an asparagus tip. Sprinkle dishes with finely chopped chervil.

Another spring vegetable favorite is a light and simple take on the traditional Pasta Primavera. Most of the time we tend to think about radishes as a raw ingredient, but cooked slowly in a little butter draws out amazing delicate flavors.

Farfalle with Peas & Radishes

1 pound package of dry farfalle (bowtie pasta)
4 ounces fresh green peas
4 ounces french breakfast radishes with greens
1 teaspoon chopped mint
salt & black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Follow package directions for cooking farfalle to “al dente” texture. Simmer peas in water with one tablespoon of the butter until tender. Drain. Thinly slice the radishes, salt lightly and cook slowly in the other tablespoon of butter. Rinse the green thoroughly and roughly chop. Quickly saute in the olive oil. Add peas and radishes and season to taste. Add drained pasta to vegetables. Toss with the mint, adjust seasoning and add additional olive oil if needed to coat pasta.

Wine and vegetable pairing follows an entirely different pattern from wine and meat. With meat, much of what makes a match work is to balance the fats and proteins in the meat with the tannins and acidity of the wine. The less intense fat and protein content of vegetable dishes requires less of this type of balance. Instead, I opt for complementing the flavors of the sauces with the flavors of the wine. Treat the wine as if it was a seasoning.

Asparagus is often considered a difficult match with wine. Naturally, it contains high levels of phosphorus and mercaptans, components that if found in a wine, would render it unpalatable. But tempered by slow cooking and matched with a rich sauce, it becomes a perfect foil for a rich, citrusy white. I recommend several California Sauvignon blancs: Franus “Farella-Park Vineyard”, Artesa Reserve, or Selene “Hyde Park Vineyard” Sauvignon blancs are all great choices.

Radishes and peas when cooked as outlined above are very delicate in flavor. I look instead at the sauce made with butter and mint as key flavoring components. A favorite grape variety with this dish is the Albariño, a native grape of Spain & Portugal. Three great choices are: Havens Albariño from Carneros in California, Martin Codax “Organistrum” from Rias Baixas in Spain, and Portal do Fidalgo Alvarinho, a vinho verde from Portugal.

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.


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