Chefs offer their freshest picks for spring

Ah, spring. The season of rebirth is warmly welcomed by most of us, but for chefs who strive to cook with local seasonal ingredients, springtime holds a special allure. Hearty soups and stews move to the back burner, and fresh-picked peas, earthy morels, and foraged fiddleheads take center stage.

It's a season that thrills northern California chef and caterer Jesse Ziff Cool. "When those tender little greens finally shoot up from the earth," she says, "we know that - yahoo! - winter is finally over."

Peter Davis, executive chef at Henrietta's Table in Cambridge, Mass., savors springtime for its bounty of fresh ingredients. "There's just much more to play with," he says. "Spring's arrival also means even more foods will become available as the weather heats up."

For Michael LaScola, executive chef and co-owner with his wife of American Seasons on Nantucket, Mass., spring is the season he opens his restaurant doors after the island's sleepy winter months. This year, his spring menu features "tons of morels," he says. Chef LaScola is also innovating dishes with fava beans, baby beets, and ramps, which are essentially wild onions similar to scallions but with a garlicky flavor.

Asparagus, one of the most beloved harbingers of spring, is a darling among restaurant chefs. Those interviewed said they prefer medium-size stalks. Pencil-thin ones, though elegant-looking, are too easily overcooked and can turn limp; jumbo ones are "woody."

Chef Davis suggests simply drizzling the spears with olive oil, sprinkling them with salt and pepper, and grilling them. Or you can steam asparagus and serve it with a lemon-herb vinaigrette. As with all fresh produce, he adds, don't embellish too much. "If you get vegetables in season from a local farmer, you don't want to mask the flavor," he says. "Just let it speak for itself."

For Sunday brunch at the Hominy Grill in Charleston, S.C., chef Robert Stehling serves asparagus Southern-style: with shrimp and grits. "Grits are everyone's breakfast down here," he says, "and shrimp are even more plentiful than pigs."

But asparagus season is on its way out in Charleston; Stehling is now relishing ramps from the mountains of North Carolina. "Ramps are a big springtime specialty in the South," he says, "but with such a strong flavor, I use them sparingly. I often chop them and bake them in spoon bread with cornmeal. When cooked, their flavor mellows."

Fiddleheads are another spring favorite, but with a short season that begins around mid-April and fizzles out a month later. They are foraged in forests in New England and Washington State.

Chef LaScola likes to make the most of the season by simply warming the fiddleheads to keep their crunchy texture, and then tossing them in a warm bacon vinaigrette. "They can get slimy when cooked," he says, "I just trim down their ends and leave them as fresh as possible."

Chef Davis is partial to fiddleheads grown in New England, which he finds less bitter than those from the West. He prefers to blanch them, then sauté them in olive oil, minced shallots, and salt and pepper. He often mixes fiddleheads with fresh peas, or he'll show off the intriguing-looking fiddleheads by presenting them as a garnish with a variety of dishes.

Ziff Cool is showcasing baby vegetables such as radishes, beets, and carrots on spring menus at her three restaurants in the Menlo Park area of California. To avoid overcooking them, she suggests steaming or blanching them in salted water. Then she likes to toss them with olive oil, garlic or onions, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. Baby vegetables also are wonderful just warmed over the grill, she adds. "Sure, baby vegetables are fashionable, and a lot of chefs use them," she says, "but if you're really trying to cook with the rhythm of the seasons, it just makes sense to serve them in the spring."

Asparagus and brie risotto

California chef Jesse Ziff Cool heralds asparagus season with this dish, which she often serves as a bed for grilled salmon.

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 green onions, minced
1 cup arborio rice
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces brie cheese, cubed

In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring broth to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer.

In a deep, heavy saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the green onions and rice and cook for 5 minutes, or until the rice is golden brown. Begin adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring constantly, for 20 minutes, or until the broth is absorbed and the risotto begins to get creamy. Just before adding the last of the broth, add the asparagus and pepper. Stir in the cheese. Serves 4.

Source: "Your Organic Kitchen," by Jesse Ziff Cool

Spring vegetable sauté

3/4 pound new potatoes, cut in half
1/2 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
2 tablespoons butter
3 to 4 small spring onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped mint
Salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook for 20 minutes, or until tender. Add snap peas during the last 2 minutes of cooking time. Drain.

Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook for 5 minutes, or until tender. Add potatoes, snap peas, nutmeg, and mint. Toss to coat well. Season to taste. Serves 6.

Source: "Your Organic Kitchen," by Jesse Ziff Cool

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