Early spring selflessly affords us with so many wonderful things to celebrate. Here, in Charleston, the air is sweet with the heady frangrances of jasmine, wisteria, and budding trees everywhere. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful, it mandates automatic forgiveness for the pollen that clogs the air and heads of the allergy afflicted masses. Here and elsewhere baseball season begins, Easter and Passover’s celebrations are underway, marathons are being run, and the thing that makes me happiest of all, Farmers’ Markets are dusting off their tents and setting up shop for another long and delicious season.
Nothing puts spring in my step like farmers’ market opening day. The vendors and farmers are rested from their early winter break (although farmers’ work never ends) and tables are bursting with the bounty of spring – tender, sweet onions, asparagus, fresh-from-the-earth potatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, turnips, greens – some of my favorite things. I’ve long held an internal debate about what seasonal foods I most prefer. As much as I adore the tomatoes and peaches of summer and the squash and apples of fall and winter, I always come back to spring as my #1 top pick. I don’t know if it’s because the silence of the winter season seems so long, but there is something about these foods that render me virtually giddy.
So, this past Saturday morning, when Charleston’s downtown Farmers’ Market opened, it felt like I was seven years old on Christmas morning, the anticipation level was that high. I pulled out my trusted, striped farmers’ market basket, donned a beaming smile and headed straight for Marion Square. As always, it was a feast for the senses and the soul. The smell of baking bread co-mingled with the sweetness of strawberries, familiar farmers and vendors smiled and sold their wares, even as more new faces and vendors did the same. It was intoxicating!
I loaded up with all my favorites and headed home to figure out how to best put these goodies to use. This was another reminder of why spring produce is especially idyllic. It needs precious little prep or ingredient additions to render it just about perfect. Super fresh produce responds very well to roasting which does a simple and fantastic job of coaxing the sugars and flavors of the supple produce out of them and directly into your happy mouth and stomach. Hence, the recipe that follows.
Roasted Spring Veggie Medley with Bacon and Scallions
(Yield: 4 to 6 servings)
In this delicious and nutritious warm veggie side, potatoes, spring onions, summer squash (though not yet quite in season), spring onions and asparagus are roasted separately (or alongside each other in the same pan) to retain their individual flavors and then tossed together, topped with sauteed bacon and scallions just prior to serving. Look for the freshest, thinnest skinned new potatoes you can find and leave the skin on. They will take just a little longer than the vegetables to cook, but the short wait is well worth the while. Non-meat eaters feel free to omit the bacon.
10 well-scrubbed small, fresh potatoes, quartered
3 spring onions, trimmed to 3″ length of the green stems, and halved
1 yellow squash, washed, trimmed and cut into 1/2″-thick slices
10 spears asparagus, washed trimmed (cut about 1″ off the bottom) and gently peeled about 3″ up from the base
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bacon, sauteed and crumbled into large chunks
3 scallions, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 425F. Prep the vegetables. In a large roasting pan, arrange each of its kind together in a single layer, side by side. If the pan is too small, roast any remaining vegetable kind (for example asparagus) in a separate pan. Drizzle the veggies generously with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss each group together to coat. Roast at 425 until tender and barely colored/golden, tossing once or twice. The potatoes will take a little longer than the rest. After 20 – 25 minutes, remove the asparagus, onions and squash with a slotted spoon and transfer to a serving bowl. Keep warm by covering with a piece of aluminum foil. Increase the oven to 450F and continue roasting the potatoes until very tender and just golden, another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, saute the bacon over medium high heat until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Crumble or chop into a small dice. Toss the potatoes together with the warm vegetables. Topp with the bacon and scallions and serve immediately. This is a delicious dish on its own, or would work magic as a side to poultry, fish, pork or steak.
Mom’s Stewed Strawberries and Rhubarb
(Yield: About 2 1/2 cups)
Me and my siblings were basically sweet and dessert deprived as kids because my mother didn’t believe in them. However, she always obliged when strawberry and rhubarb season came around with this simple and delicious compote. Serve it warm over ice cream or cold over yogurt for breakfast. Unlike Mom, I add a little cinnamon and vanilla, but feel free to omit if you want it “plain.”
4 rhubarb spears, trimmed and cut into 1/2″-thick pieces
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 vanilla pod, cut in half vertically
Generous pinch ground cinnamon
Combine all of the ingredients together in a medium sauce pan. Bring up to a boil over high heat and reduce to medium. Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the rhubarb has broken down into a sauce and the strawberries are still chunky, but very soft. Remove the vanilla pod and discard. Serve warm or cold as suggested above. Refrigerate, covered, for 2 to 3 days. This will also freeze well for several weeks.