Tuesday, April 10, 2018

In Season: Tender Young Things

I noticed it a few weeks ago. Little yellow buds had appeard on the forsythia outside my kitchen window, one of the first signs that spring was, indeed, on its way. So I quickly made an appointment to sit down with veggie guy Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce to get the skinny on what farmers would be bringing in from their fields.

He led off with a recitation of a prodigious list of brassica inflorescences—sometimes labeled raab, rapini and rabe—that would be trooping through his doors and appearing on farmers' market tables around the area: kale, collard, chard, cabbage, bok choy, spigarello, turnip and brussels sprouts, among others. He noted that these tender green flowering shoots get their sweet flavor from the sugars that the plants pump out to ward off damage from frosty temperatures in early spring, protecting the seeds that will develop after the buds flower.

We agreed that the best way to prepare these shoots is to simply sauté them in olive oil and a showering of salt just before serving, though adding a couple of cloves of garlic or bacon wouldn't be a bad idea. But they're also appropriate when combined in stir fries, soups, stews, pastas, grains and beans.

"Spring bulby things" was the next category, which included spring radishes and early turnips like the Japanese Hakurei variety. He recommends consuming the radishes raw with unsalted butter, but both the radishes and turnips can be sautéed or roasted, as well. Alsberg didn't have to add an admonishment to use the greens from both, since I'm dedicated to sautéeing the tender greens from the turnips or making pesto from the tiny radish greens.

A pro tip if you're picking up radishes and turnips from a supermarket—which might be bringing them in from a faraway conventional farm—is to smell them first, he said. If they smell chemical-ly or off, "don't eat 'em," adding it's best to "follow your nose" when it comes to fresh vegetables.

Alsberg's also getting spring onions and garlic from local foraging companies, and emphasizes it's appropriate to use the whole plant after trimming off the roots, and that they're best added at the end of cooking to preserve their fresh, delicate taste. Washington asparagus is starting to appear, though you'll have to get to the farmers' market early (which counts me out) to get the small amounts coming in from Oregon growers. The season for Oregon asparagus won't really get going until later this month and into May.

Salad greens like arugula and watercress are beginning to flood in from the fields as the weather warms and should be around for the rest of the spring months. Alsberg encourages buying watercress in bunches rather than bags, since most of the bagged version are "upland cress," which is a different genus. Black Locust Farm in Boring, Oregon, part of the Headwaters Farm incubator project, is growing a Persian, or crinkled, variety that Alsberg is excited about.

Mustards, including mizuna, and mache are appearing, as is baby spinach. The babies will soon be followed by adult bunches in a matter of weeks, which you always want to buy from organic growers, since a recent report found "conventionally grown spinach has more pesticide residues by weight than all other produce tested."

Alsberg effuses over the "luxurious, beany flavor" of fava shoots (above, right), so you may have to fight him off at the farmers' market when he's there, as well as pea shoots, which he describes as the essence of spring with their "mellow, green, pea flavor." Look for lettuces to start coming in from local farms in late April and May.

And what about local strawberries, you might ask? They'll be dribbling in from hoop houses starting in mid-April, with the full-on flood starting around Mother's Day in mid-May.

As regards strawberry varieties, his advice on our precious Hood strawberries, known for their delicate and perishable natures, is to "take the whole pint and shove them in your face, stems and all."  Albions are wonderful for slicing into salads and fresh with desserts; Seascapes, not quite as sweet as Albions or Hoods but full-flavored and robust, are good for cooking; and Shuksan, which are touted as combining the best of Hoods and Seascapes, are excellent for both cooking and eating out of hand.

Pro tip: In his humble opinion, the best strawberries come from Deep Roots Farm between Corvallis and Albany. "Everybody should always be buying their berries from Deep Roots." So there you go. Happy spring!

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