Dining & Culinary
Enjoy the best of Wake County’s dining scene.

Eat Your Greens: 10 ways to celebrate spring’s bounty

By Catering Works

The midwinter blues have us longing for the arrival of spring. Our palates, too, are longing for a change, and spring brings a host of delicious green vegetables that will enliven your meals. Some are tried and true favorites like asparagus, leeks and spring peas. Some veggies making an appearance at the market may be unfamiliar. Consider this to be your guide to 10 of the best and tastiest greens spring has to offer. We’ll start with the beginning of the alphabet.

Artichokes

The globe artichoke, also known as the French artichoke or green artichoke here in the United States, is actually a variety of a species of thistle that has been cultivated as food. The edible portion of the plant is the budding flowerhead before the plant comes into bloom. The flowerhead consists of many budding small flowers on an edible base. Once the flowers bloom, the flowerhead structure changes to a coarse, barely edible form. The plant can grow up to 6 feet tall and has silvery-green leaves with a waxy coating or bloom. The flowers develop in a large head, about 3-6 inches in diameter, with many triangular scales. The edible portion of the buds are the fleshy lower leaves and the base, also known as the heart. The cluster of immature florets in the very center of the bud is called the choke or beard. These are edible in young flowers. As the flower grows older and larger, they become inedible.

To prepare these delicacies, begin by removing all but 3/8″ or so of the stem. Thorns, which may interfere with eating, can be removed but cutting off about a quarter of each scale. Artichokes are typically simmered or steamed, anywhere from 15-30 minutes for simmering and 30-40 minutes for steaming, depending upon their size. If boiling or simmering, seasoning can be added to the water. Covered artichokes, especially those that have been cut, may turn brown due to enzymatic browning or chlorophyll oxidation. Adding a little vinegar or lemon juice to the water can prevent the discoloration. To eat, the leaves are usually removed one at a time and the fleshy base is eaten; the fibrous upper part of each leaf is usually discarded. The inedible choke must be peeled away from the base before the heart can be eaten; however, the thin leaves covering the choke are edible. Typical accompaniments are hollandaise, melted butter, aioli or mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette.

Artichokes are popular throughout the Mediterranean region. Artichoke hearts packed in oil are used as the “spring” quadrant of the “Four Seasons” pizza popular in Italy. Romans are fond of “Jewish-style artichokes,” a recipe where they are deep-fried whole. Another common preparation is stuffing them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, garlic, fresh herbs, grated cheese and perhaps prosciutto or sausage. In North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Armenia, many prefer to use ground lamb in stuffed artichoke recipes. In Spain, artichokes are used in paella or sauteed and combined with eggs in a tortilla or omelet. In Greece, you will find anginares alla Polita, “artichokes city-styled,” referring to the city of Constantinople. This recipe is a hearty stew made with artichoke hearts, potatoes, carrots, onions, lemon and dill. The villages of Iria and Kantia celebrate their production with an artichoke festival.

Fun fact: Artichokes can also be made into an herbal tea. This infusion is popular among the Vietnamese people for its medicinal properties. Artichoke-based teas can also be found in Romania and Mexico. The tea has a slightly bitter, woody taste. If tea isn’t your style, you’ll be pleased to learn that artichoke is the primary botanical ingredient in the Italian aperitif, Cynar. It’s produced by the Campari Group and has a 16.5% alcohol by volume. It can be served as an aperitif over ice or as a cocktail mixed with orange juice, which is very popular in Switzerland. It is also used to make a Cin Cyn, a version of a Negroni, substituting Cynar for the Campari.

Arugula

This edible plant is used as a leafy green and appreciated for its fresh, bitter and peppery flavor. It resembles a longer-leaved lettuce and is very rich in vitamin C and potassium. In addition to the leaves, the flowers, young seed pods and mature seeds are all edible. It has been grown as a vegetable/herb since Roman times and was mentioned by the famous Roman poet, Virgil, as an aphrodisiac. In Italy, it is often added to a pizza at the end of, or just after, baking, and can be added to pasta sauces or fried and used as a condiment for cold meats and fish. It’s also been added raw to salads and pairs well with burrata, buffalo and mozzarella cheeses. In Rome, it is used in a dish called straccetti, which is a dish of thinly sliced raw beef with arugula and Parmesan cheese. Salads are a popular preparation, and arugula is served this way in Turkey, West Asia, Pakistan and Northern India. Slovenians use it most often in soup or combine it with boiled potatoes.

Asparagus

Asparagus is a perennial flowering plant species whose young shoots are used as a vegetable. It was once grouped in the lily family along with onions and garlic, but it has since been reclassified. It’s an herbaceous plant with stout stems sporting feathery foliage, and has been consumed since ancient times. It is even pictured as an offering on an Egyptian frieze dating to 3000 B.C. A recipe for cooking asparagus is in one of the oldest surviving collections of recipes, Apicius de re Coquinaria, likely from the first century. Widespread use was slow to spread to western Europe and it didn’t gain attention in England until 1538. Asparagus was brought to North America around 1655, and one of William Penn’s advertisements for Pennsylvania includes asparagus in a long list of crops suitable for growing in the American climate.

The vegetable is prepared around the world and served in numerous ways. Stir-frying is popular in Asian style cooking, as well as grilling and pickling. Stem thickness indicates the age of the plant and only young asparagus is commonly eaten. Once the buds begin to fan out, the shoots turn woody quickly. Stem girth is not an indicator of tenderness or toughness. Stalks are thick or thin from the moment they sprout from the ground. It is recommended that a thorough cleaning be done as the bottom portion can often contain sand or soil. Green asparagus is eaten throughout the world, and with the short growing season and demand for local produce, asparagus can command a premium price. White asparagus is popular in Europe and western Asia, and is the result of applying a blanching technique while the shoots are growing. The shoots are covered with soil as they shoot up or grow, depriving them of sunlight. With no sunlight, photosynthesis does not occur and the asparagus remains white. Compared to green asparagus, the white is considered to be less bitter and more tender. For serving, the French style is most popular and consists of boiling or steaming the vegetable and serving with hollandaise, white sauce, melted butter or olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

Fava Beans

Also called broad beans, fava beans are a species of a flowering plant in the pea and bean family that have a long tradition of cultivation, as a crop for both human and livestock consumption, as well as a cover crop. They are believed to have become part of the eastern Mediterranean diet around 6000 B.C. The beans, once the outer seed coat is removed, can be eaten raw or cooked. The immature seed pods can also be cooked and eaten, as well as the young leaves of the plant which can be consumed either raw or cooked. Preparation involves first removing the beans from the pod, parboiling to help loosen the exterior coating, and finally steaming or boiling. They can also be fried and then salted or seasoned to make for a crunchy, savory snack.

Their popularity spans the globe and they can be found in nearly every cuisine. In China, they are combined with soybeans and chili peppers to produce a spicy fermented bean paste. They are especially popular in Egypt and are the primary ingredient in Egyptian-style falafel. They are also considered one of Egypt’s national dishes, served cooked and partially mashed and seasoned with oil, salt and cumin. They are served a variety of ways in Ethiopia and are vital for traditional dishes served during fasting periods in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In Finland, they are used to make a meat substitute called Harkis. In Italy, they are often cooked with guanciale or artichokes and served as a side dish for lamb. They are even used in Vietnamese cuisine where they are stir-fried with rice noodles, shrimp, Thai basil, quail eggs and pig intestines in an intense dry stew called hu tieu long heo.

Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddlehead Ferns are the furled fronds of a young fern. If left on the plant, each fiddlehead would unfurl into a new frond. They are harvested early in the season and their name comes from their resemblance to the curled ornamentation on the end of a stringed instrument. When harvesting, it is recommended to take only 1/3 of the tops on the plant to ensure a sustainable harvest. Repeated overpicking will eventually kill the plant. Fiddleheads can be sold either fresh or frozen, with the fresh only available for a few weeks in the spring.

To cook, first remove the brown papery husk and then wash in several changes of cold water. Then they can be boiled, steamed or sauteed and served hot with lemon, butter, garlic or hollandaise, or served cold in a salad with mayonnaise or a vinaigrette. Fiddleheads have been eaten by Native Americans, as well as inhabitants of Northern France and Asia. They have been foraged for, and eaten, in France since the Middle Ages and in the Americas for centuries. In the Russian Far East, they are often foraged in autumn and then preserved in salt over the winter for consumption in the spring. Preparations elsewhere include an Indonesian stew rich with coconut, chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass and turmeric. In the Philippines, they are served in a salad with tomato, salted egg and a vinaigrette. Cooks in Japan will turn them into a dessert called warabimochi. In North America, most commercial harvesting occurs in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Maine, although Nova Scotia, Vermont and New Hampshire farm them as well. They contain various vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Fiddleheads are also a source of antioxidants and dietary fiber, and are low in sodium and rich in potassium.

Herbs

Herbs can bring a quick dose of freshness to any dish. Some of the easiest to cultivate early are parsley, onion chives, cilantro and chervil. Italian parsley is versatile, hardy and pairs well with many foods. It can be used in marinades, dressings, compound butters and stuffings, and even as a salad green. Onion chives are a close relative to onions, garlic, shallots and leeks. The green stalks, or scapes, can be minced or diced and used as an ingredient in a number of dishes. It pairs well with fish, eggs and potatoes and makes a nice garnish for soups. Its edible flowers, light purple and resembling pom-poms, can even be used in salads. Cilantro has a tart lemon/lime like flavor and is a necessary ingredient in Hispanic and Asian cooking. As heat diminishes its flavor, be sure to add it to your dish immediately before serving. Chervil, sometimes called French parsley, is related to parsley and has a delicate flavor. It is commonly used to season mild-flavored dishes like poultry, fish and young spring vegetables. With its faint flavor of licorice or anise seed, chervil is combined in equal parts with tarragon, chives and parsley in fines herbes, a classic seasoning in French cuisine.

Leeks

Related to onions, garlic, shallots, scallions and chives, the edible portion of the leek is the white base of the leaves located above the roots and stem base. They have a mild onion-like taste and can be prepared a number of ways. Boiling them will turn the vegetable soft and render the flavor even more mild. The most popular way of eating leeks in France is boiled, then served cold with a vinaigrette. Frying will leave the vegetable crunchier and preserves the taste well. Leeks can also be used raw in salads. In Turkish cuisine, they are often chopped into thick slices, boiled to tenderize and then stuffed with a mixture of rice, other herbs like parsley and dill, onion and black pepper. They are vital to cock-a-leekie soup, leek and potato soup, and vichyssoise. They are used extensively in Wales and have become symbolic of Welsh cuisine.

Peas

Peas are the small spherical seeds of the pod fruit Pisum sativum. Each pod contains several peas, which can be either green or yellow. Botanically, pea pods are a fruit since they develop from a flower and contain seeds. They are a cool season crop and are often planted from winter to early summer. The peas can be used fresh or preserved by canning or freezing. The earliest archaeological evidence of peas dates to the late Neolithic era in what is current Greece, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iraq and Jordan. Evidence has also been found in Egypt, Georgia and Afghanistan. Peas were a staple during the Middle Ages, as they helped to keep famine at bay. By the 17th and 18th centuries, it had become popular to eat peas “green,” that is, while they are immature and just picked. New cultivars were developed by the English and became known as “garden” or “English” peas. Their popularity spread to North America. Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 cultivars on his estate. With the advent of canning and freezing as methods of preservation, they became available year-round and their popularity grew even more. Fresh peas are often boiled and flavored with butter or mint and served as a side dish. Dried peas are often made into soup, especially in northern and central Europe, and parts of Russia, Iran, Iraq and India. In Japan, China, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries, they are roasted, salted and eaten as a snack. The pea soup in Hungary and Serbia is often served with dumplings and seasoned with hot paprika. In the UK, mushy peas, dried, rehydrated and mashed marrowfat peas, or cooked, green split peas, are very popular and are the ubiquitous side dish for fish and chips.

Ramps

Ramps are a North American species of wild onion that can be found throughout eastern Canada and the eastern United States. Both the lower white stalks and green leaves are edible. It has a strong garlic odor with a pronounced onion flavor. They are especially popular in central Appalachia where they are most commonly fried in bacon fat with potatoes or added to scrambled eggs and served with bacon, pinto beans and cornbread. Pickling is another popular preparation, and they can be a fine substitute for onion and garlic in almost any recipe.

Spinach

Spinach is a green leafy flowering plant native to central and western Asia. It is thought to have originated about 2,000 years ago in ancient Persia, and it was then brought to India and then China via Nepal. It made its way west into Sicily and then England and France via Spain in the 14th century where it gained common usage because it appeared early in spring, often before other fresh local vegetables were available. Spinach was mentioned in the first known English cookbook, the Forme of Cury (1390) where it is referred to as “spinnedge” and “spynoches.” Due to its nutritional content, injured French soldiers were fed wine fortified with spinach juice during World War I. It is commonly consumed fresh, but can also be preserved through canning, freezing or dehydration. Spinach can be eaten raw or cooked, but there is a marked difference in taste. A versatile green, it can be tossed in salads, added to soups, pasta sauces or casseroles, or eaten on its own. It does not require much cooking time, only a quick sauté or dip in boiling water.

There is nothing better to shake off the winter doldrums than indulging in the fresh, young produce of spring. Get to the market, partake in these veggies and revel in the tenderness, delicate flavor and freshness!