Spring's Dining Table Reaches Its Full Bounty

During spring, nature rolls out a lush green welcome carpet and invites us to her table.

Each week some new treasure springs from this seasonal bounty. For those of us who love good food, each delectable arrival merits its own celebration.

Spring foods tend to be delicate, sweet, and tender. They disappear from gardens and marketplaces faster than you can say, "summer heat wave."

The past few months in southern California have brought us a veritable wheelbarrow-full of produce.

One of the first to arrive was artichokes. When available, buy baby artichokes. They can be trimmed, steamed, and eaten whole since the choke has not yet fully developed. Add sliced lemon and garlic cloves to the cooking liquid for additional flavor.

Other early arrivals followed: cucumbers, spinach, and rhubarb. There is no comparison between small, tender, garden-fresh cucumbers and those large waxy clubs found at markets during the off-season. Tender, young spinach and rhubarb equally have no rivals for quality and taste.

April's plethora of plenty came next. My California herb garden burst forth with its display of fragrant greenery and edible flowers. Like the song, fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme now are in season. For an interesting flavor treat, try a breakfast smoothie with parsley, mixed fruit juices, a banana, and toasted wheat germ. You will be surprised at how well parsley works in this manner.

For more traditional herb usage, saut boneless, skinless chicken breasts in butter and olive oil. Just before serving, stir in a mixture of minced spring herbs and add a dash of balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice.

April further brought us celery, endive, radishes, lettuce, greens, asparagus, and carrots. If you have a home garden, and the weather is still on the cool side, consider planting some of the more unusual varieties of radishes, such as black radishes, which have a marvelously pungent bite. They are perfect for appetizer platters and salads, as is garden cress. This spicy green, similar to watercress, will provide zip to any vegetable dish. With such flavorful salad ingredients, very little dressing is needed.

The month of May was named after Maia, the Roman goddess of planting, and it lives up to its ancient namesake.

Potatoes and strawberries come into season during this month. Early peppers, tomatoes, beans, and peas also are ready for picking. My sugar-snap peas barely make it to the kitchen, as I cannot help but nibble on them directly after picking.

The following menu showcases spring's edible splendor.

Marinated Loin Lamb Chops

This serves 8 light eaters, or 4 who really love their lamb.

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup water

3 garlic cloves, minced

8 1-1/2-inch thick loin lamb chops

2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crushed

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Whisk first 5 ingredients together and place in non-aluminum casserole or baking dish. Add lamb chops. Cover and marinate overnight, or for several hours, in the refrigerator, turning several times.

Prepare an outdoor grill or preheat oven broiler.

Combine rosemary, oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Remove chops from marinade. Pat dry. Rub seasoning mixture over chops. Grill or broil approximately 4 minutes per side.

Maytag Blue Mashed Potatoes

Maytag Blue is a smooth, creamy and white domestic "blue" cheese made in Iowa. In addition to potato dishes, it is delicious when crumbled over salads, stirred into creamy dressings and served with crackers and fruit.

2 tablespoons butter

6 ounces Maytag Blue, or other blue cheese

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup heavy cream

2 pounds potatoes, peeled, cubed and boiled until tender

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat combine butter, cheese, milk, and cream. Cook, stirring continuously, until cheese melts. Pour cheese mixture over potatoes in a bowl. Season with cayenne and salt. Mash potatoes until smooth. If necessary, reheat over low heat in a saucepan or double boiler. Dust with a bit more cayenne pepper after serving if you desire.

Serves 6.

Asparagus With Shaved Parmesan

This is a version of a classic Venetian dish. Although it is incredibly easy, it is elegant enough to serve at a formal dinner. Like many Italian dishes, its simplicity belies how delicious it is. Be sure to use imported Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which can be found at most large supermarkets.

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed

1/4 cup olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4-ounce piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Steam asparagus until just tender, about 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper together in a small bowl.

Transfer asparagus to a warm serving platter. Pour lemon dressing over the asparagus. Top with shavings of parmesan cheese.

Serves 6.

Strawberry Pie

For the crust:

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 pints strawberries, hulled and sliced

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3/4 cup water

Heavy cream for whipping

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk together oil and milk until creamy.

Stir salt, sugar, and flour together in a 9-inch pie pan. Pour oil mixture over dry ingredients. Mix with your fingers until just blended. Press dough evenly around sides and bottom of pan to form the shell. Bake for approximately 12 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Place strawberries in a stainless steel saucepan over medium high heat. In a small bowl, whisk together sugar and cornstarch. Sprinkle over strawberries. Add water. Cook, stirring, until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat; continuing to stir until thickened. Transfer to a bowl. Cover, refrigerate until cool.

When chilled, fill pie shell using a slotted spoon. Serve with whipped cream.

Yields 6 to 8 slices.

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