by BRIAN KERR,
Owner of Central Oregon Restaurant Consulting
Hallelujah Spring is here! I have had to tie myself to my chair today, as it is currently like 70 degrees and partly, nope, make that fully sunny! The sunshine and warmth is such a welcome relief from what seemed like a forever winter, some of its evidence still lingers in my neighborhood, clinging desperately to trees and shadows, kept alive by the still, cold nights.
I recently read in a cookbook that it is the cold nights that add a level of sweetness to the early spring vegetables that are now popping up around your local grocery. Asparagus comes to mind first off — I think we all associate springtime when the teeny tiny stems of asparagus show up to replace the woody stalks shipped from goodness knows where. These thin spears of asparagus are a harbinger of good things to come. However, before you put the kettle on or fire up the grill (my favorite way to eat asparagus is grilled simply with olive oil and salt) try eating your asparagus raw. Surely you have tried this before, but perhaps only a spear, or half of one? Have you tried a whole salad of raw asparagus? I made one for dinner last night out of toasted walnuts, a funky blue cheese, lots of lemon and extra virgin olive oil and I swear, it was so dang yummy! The crunch of the raw vegetable with its grassy, sweet, asparagus-y flavor pushed along with some flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper, the lemon zest playing a contrasting role to the full flavored and soft, fatty blue cheese, all of which leans on and gets better when a toasted walnut makes it to the fork. I paired the salad with a steak from the grill and left the table happy. I got to wondering about how I might use the rest of the bunch of spears I purchased, and since the grill was still hot, I took to my go-to 3-ingredient recipe and grilled them up al dente, cooled them down and cut them into 1-inch bits to use in an omelet in the morning for breakfast. Grilled asparagus with grated or peeled parmigiano and lemon zest as a side, or a cold salad, on toast with smashed fava beans or avocado and aleppo pepper, or pureed into a soup, or a salsa! (See Asparagus Salad recipe on page 10.)
But it was that salad that got me thinking about other items that could possibly take its place in a similar arrangement.
Pea shoots is another item I look forward to munching on in the spring with their bright color, tender leaves, playful curlicues of tendrils and some firm stems in there to keep it all bouncy and fun. The pea shoots could easily stand in for the asparagus in the salad I had for dinner, perhaps with shredded parmesan or fresh ricotta cheese instead of the blue, and adding some mint and basil to it, and extra ground black pepper with a light vinaigrette. This delectable early spring treat is great on its own, but put it between two slices of olive oil-brushed and toasted crusty bread with mortadella and some olives, spice it up with some pickled peppers from your pantry and you’ve got yourself a delicious treat.
But, enough about cold salads, the mornings are still chilly, as are the evenings! Plenty of spring vegetables are well suited to warmer dishes. Have you seen any ramps in the store yet? They have a very short season as they are the earliest version of wild leeks, so they have an intense garlic-onion flavor and a heady aroma. Making pesto, the basil variety, ought to be in your kitchen arsenal, you could make it without a recipe, right? Are you secure enough in your pesto powers that you can try another herb, or nut? Ramp pesto is just a straight up knockout for garnishing your fresh pasta dishes, to fold into aioli for a bite of toast, or as a dressing for spring lamb. Just process some chopped ramps with some kosher or sea salt till smoothish, drizzle in enough extra virgin olive oil to loosen it up to your liking. You can embellish it with toasted nuts if you like, or if you are a by the book pesto maker you can add cheese too. But the three ingredient ramp pesto is sublime. Remember, when cooking with very few ingredients, use the best you can get your hands on or afford.
As the pages on the calendar begin to turn toward regularly warmer, if not predictable, weather, more and more items tend to turn up in your CSA basket. Mustard greens, red sorrel and calcot onions are just several of the unique items I have recently seen advertised in local baskets. I had to look up the Calcot Onion though, that was a new one on me. They are a milder version of a scallion, quite similar in appearance, and they are originally from Spain. Where does that info take your cheffy mind? Romesco sauce! Grilled onions and potatoes with an almond-rich, roasted red pepper puree tongue tingling chile and olive oil delivery system! Wow, if you can find some of these treats, go for it.
I like to use broccoli raab, or rabe, or rapini, as a side dish whenever the first and freshest arrive, I tend to treat them a lot like I do asparagus, but I favor the saute pan instead of the grill. Something about searing the leaves and stems and tender buds in olive oil with a lot of garlic sends my taste buds into heaven.
Speaking of heaven, it wouldn’t be heaven if there weren’t beets there! Early, early beets are sweet enough, and hopefully small and tender enough for you to brush off the grit and eat one out of hand! Try it, I did, and I was transported. I lived in Russia for a summer while working at a fishing camp and beets were the dominant vegetable at the market there so I learned how to cook borscht like the Russians do. When I came home, and over the years, l have learned how to pickle them, roast them, boil them, salt roast, make beet and bacon sandwiches, shred them and dry them and turn that into a powder to garnish plates with. I don’t particularly care much for late season beet tops, but the young tender tops are good for a saute with some kale and mustard greens, arugula and garlic. I am making dinner this week with some roasted young beets which I will add to some young carrots, maybe some roasted garlic cloves. Kinda like what you might do in the fall and winter with squash and onions, turnips, just your basic root vegetable roast, but this time using younger, more vibrant flavors and colors.
Artichokes are another great spring and summer item, good in so many different ways. We all have had someone’s version of artichoke dip, a couple of restaurants in town offer good ones, and it’s a staple at potlucks year round. But when they are young and in season is when they have the most flavor, are more tender and much more versatile. I like to shop for small ones and peel away all of the outer leaves, peel away the skin on the stem, pull out the purple choke and scrape it clean with a spoon. Rinse them in some lemon water to keep them from turning color on you. From here you can slice in half vertically and oven roast them alongside some carrots, or just with herbs, oil and garlic or leeks and lemon. From there you can make your own iconic dip, or a roasted artichoke soup, cool them down and slice into a salad with nuts, avocado, arugula and farro with herbs and olives.
As I round out this edition I would be remiss if I left out another one of those post-winter food items that herald in the season of sunshine, budding trees and flowers, kids in the playground and adults on mountain bikes. Tender, delicious, versatile lamb. I am also cooking lamb this week, I think I will do lamb chops, though I have also cooked some lamb leg recently, braising it with cumin and coriander, plenty of flavorful broth, some onion, carrot and dried guajillo chilis and used that as the basis for some incredible tacos and tortas. The lamb chops I will cook this week are of the more tender and fresh variety, so I want that flavor to be the standout, simply cooked on the grill with a marinade brushed on made from coriander, fennel, olive oil, lemon, greek oregano and some fresh parsley. I will serve this with an arugula salad dressed in a honey-chili vinaigrette alongside some twice fried fingerling potatoes and wilted spinach. The combination of flavors and aromas are sure to drive my neighbors wild. (See Grilled Lamb Chops recipe on page 38.)
Lastly, I just want to remind everyone to shop local, support your local farmers and producers, your independent grocers, all of which work so hard to keep us alive with the best that Central
Oregon has to offer. Eat locally at restaurants that support those farmers and businesses. Ask your server, next time you are out, where does the chef shop? Show your businesses that you care by supporting them through your purchases, by participating in CSA programs, lending a hand at a local farm, and saying thank you to the hard working people who only have our satisfaction in mind.