|FARM FRESH MARKETS: SPRING 2010
They might not make it to the local park for an afternoon of kite-flying, but chefs and pastry chefs herald the arrival of spring in their own way. Winter recedes, taking its sharp chill and hard, icy ground with it, and from the warming soil sprout tender seedlings full of culinary promise. Shopping a farmers market in early spring is kind of like shopping the sample sale of a hot new designer—everybody wants a taste of what’s new. Stalls are flooded with fresh produce of every color and size, and most of it is young enough to serve naked or simply dressed.
And while some chefs spend each spring discovering exotic fruits and vegetables heretofore unknown, many chefs work tirelessly to find the best quality specimen of a time-honored spring staple and put it to good, often innovative, use in their kitchens. The best of them take dependable fruits and vegetables and use them to give spring seasonal menus backbone. For Farm Fresh Markets, spring, we look specifically to the magic that can be made when a common ingredient falls into uncommon hands.
Timeless harbinger of spring, asparagus is known to show up in California as early as February, so West Coast chefs have likely already had their first taste of the season’s crop. But for the rest of us, this nutty green vegetable will likely be making its first significant appearance within days. And for chefs, the arrival of asparagus means a new element of crunchy texture and nutty, woodsy, herbaceous flavor that is bold enough to pair with other strong components on the plate. And because it can endure a variety of cooking methods, asparagus is also a versatile choice for the chef, whatever the menu concept. We’ve seen Chef Jon Besh pair white asparagus with smoked foie gras and Chef Sylvain Portay pair green asparagus with Parmesan and earthy morels. But Chef Mary Dumont of Boston’s Harvest restaurant opts for both green and white in her salad recipe, cutting through their natural earthiness with bright lemon sabayon and sweet, salty prosciutto.
Owing to their hardiness, carrots are available all year long, but late spring is the season to harvest them at their youngest and sweetest. Planted in the early spring or early fall, the carrot will develop a leafy canopy of foliage, storing all of its sugar in the tap root (or carrot) below the ground. Even with its many colorful varieties, the carrot is fairly straightforward in its raw form, and only shows its innate versatility in the kitchen. The chef looking for potential shouldn’t look any further. Carrots can be steamed, grilled, chopped, shredded, puréed, and juiced. And they provide incredible natural sweetness and a floral earthiness redolent of tomato, making them boundary-crossers in the kitchen. No self-respecting pastry chef is without their own recipe for the raisin-studded classic, carrot cake. And savory dishes like Ferran Adrià’s Cloud of Carrot showcase the adaptability of the carrot to modern high-concept cooking.
Native to Europe and the Americas, the strawberry we know and love today has undergone generations of cross-cultivation. Supermarkets tend to stock the bulbous red varieties, often more watery than sweet, but most farmers markets will have smaller and more flavorful varieties available from April through June. Pastry chefs and chefs alike are doing so much to highlight the essence of the strawberry with modern and classic techniques, that the mundane “strawberry-flavor” of supermarket shelves could easily become a thing of the past. And whether they’e pulverized for a sorbet, dehydrated for a tart and sweet garnish, or aerated into an ethereal strawberry foam, strawberries always play a marquee role in the dishes and desserts of early spring.
Radishes come in all shapes and sizes. Well, almost. The smallest are harvested in warmer weather, while larger specimens like the behemoth Daikon are common winter varieties. Although the red-skinned spherical type is the most common American cultivar, radishes can exhibit a healthy range of flavor and textural variations depending on their size, shape, and age. This gives the species as a whole immense versatility in the kitchen. We’ve seen chefs incorporate black radishes into compositional, kaiseki-style spring salads, while Asian specimens like the behemoth Daikon varieties can be steamed, puréed, baked, or sautéed depending on the chef’s perspective. The most prominent flavor characteristic of radishes is its raw bite, which chefs can amplify with acid or play against by adding elements of sweetness or buttery richness.