10 Unusual Spring Ingredients You Need to Experiment With
Spring is one of the most exciting times of the year to cook. If you’re interested in experimenting with some new produce, now is the time to do it. The farmers markets are literally filled with ingredients freshly foraged from flowering fields and wet woods. Fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and rhubarb are just a few of the limited-edition vegetables you’ll come across at local grocers. If you’ve never cooked with these ingredients, don’t be intimidated! They are just as easy to cook with as your favorite spring standbys. However, unlike asparagus, these vibrantly colored veggies won’t make anything smell funny after consumption! Ready to learn about the bounty of spring? Here are 10 unusual seasonal ingredients you need to try cooking with.
Fiddlehead ferns are round, tightly coiled green discs that look like they should be in a Dr. Seuss story. Fiddleheads are a sign of spring and have a very short harvest period. They are the curled fronds of young ferns that are collected before the fronds have a chance to uncurl as they mature. You’ll find fiddleheads at local markets or specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods. Look for small, firm spirals that haven’t started to uncurl. Wash before cooking, and rub off the papery, scale-like covering. Avoid eating fiddleheads raw; instead, enjoy them like you would asparagus: roasted, sautéed, boiled, or steamed. They have a texture similar to green beans and a flavor that is grassy and woodsy.
Over the past couple of years, rhubarb, a thick, fibrous vegetable stalk that looks like pink celery, has grown in popularity. While the raspberry-hued varietal is more common, rhubarb also grows green. It has an incredibly sour taste, which is why it’s often enjoyed in a sweet preparation. The leaves are mildly toxic and should not be eaten. Rhubarb can be found both at markets and larger grocery chains; select thick, firm stalks that are free of wrinkles and signs of drying. Store in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator for several days. Think of rhubarb like you would fresh cranberry: It is almost always cooked, usually with quite a bit of sugar, but it can be used to add texture and tartness to stews and meat dishes.
Although dandelion greens are generally considered a weed, they are a bitter leafy green chock-full of health benefits. The entire plant—flower, leaves, and root—is edible, and dandelion is often used as a medicinal healing component. Dandelion supports liver function, is a full of powerful antioxidants, and is an excellent source of calcium, iron, fiber, and vitamins A, E, and K. Dandelion greens can be found at most commercial grocery stores in green mixes or as a bunch. Buy organic varietals and choose greens that have a beautiful bright color. Avoid leaves that are brown, spoiled, or wilting. Use in salads, soups, sautées, and pilafs. They are great with legumes like cannelloni beans and are an ideal ingredient for homemade green juices and healthy smoothies.
Fava beans, sometimes known as broad beans, are a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern staple that can be found at major grocery stores and natural food markets. Look for small pods that have an emerald color and firm texture. Unless you plan on eating the pods, buy a lot—two pounds of unshelled beans yields about one cup of shelled beans. Although it can be a pain to cook fava beans, they are one of my favorite spring ingredients. To prepare favas, you must remove the beans from the pods and then cook the shelled beans in boiling water for one minute. Drain and plunge into an ice water bath. Pinch the beans to remove the tough outer skins. Now you are ready to use in any recipe. Mashed favas are scrumptious on crostini; whole favas are delicious in salads and pastas. More and more chefs are experimenting with cooking the entire pod. Throw them on the grill and season with good olive oil and flaky salt. Delish!
Green garlic is also known as young garlic or spring garlic and is garlic that hasn’t fully matured. In order for farmers to thin their garlic stock, they pull the garlic from the ground before the clove and bulb dry out. This means that green garlic comes in different sizes, depending on when it was pulled. It can look a lot like green or spring onions, so to be sure you’re buying green garlic, smell it. It should smell like garlic rather than like onion. Also, the leaves are flat, not round. Look for bunches that have long white or purple bases and intact roots. Prep in the way that you would leeks: by trimming the bottom and washing thoroughly to remove any soil that might be trapped inside. Use green garlic like you would normal garlic or green onions. It can be enjoyed raw in salad dressings, as a flavor base in soups, pasta, and rice bowls, or to season protein like a rib eye.
Although mushrooms are generally associated with colder weather, like in fall and winter, the morel is a harbinger of spring. Morels have a distinctive honeycomb-like cap that is covered with ridges and pits. Morels are hard to cultivate, so they can be expensive. When the weather and soil conditions are just right, they grow extensively in the wild, but they must be found by foragers. If you’re up to paying for the delicacy, look for firm, dry, and small morels. Avoid large ones because they are older and more prone to sponginess and rot. Worms and critters like to live in morels’ nooks and crevices, so be sure to clean the frills well before preparing. Morels can be cooked like any other mushroom and are often used in rich French preparations and creamy pasta dishes.
Nettles can be found at farmers markets. The flavor of nettles is slightly floral and slightly woodsy with a hint of spinach. Nettles are an intimidating ingredient because they are often referred to as stinging nettles. To remove the stinging part, wash and drain the nettles and then discard the stems. Boil the leaves for three to four minutes until the greens have wilted. Drain and store in an airtight refrigerated container for five days. They are often used as a medicinal herb, but the spring plant can be used in soups, salads, pizzas, and pastas. Nettles can be substituted for parsley in most recipes. Toss them into sauces for an herbaceous finish, or mix into scrambled eggs.
Pea tips are a variety of snow pea grown only for its tender, leaf-like tips. The tips grow abundantly just before the pods are completely mature. Sometimes called pea shoots, snow pea tips are a beloved Chinese ingredient that is scrumptious stir-fried. The taste is similar to that of snow peas, but with a fresher, grass-like flavor. Pea tips are commonly sold by the bag at Chinese grocers. Look for bags that don’t have too many curly tendrils—you want leaves and stems. Use in the aforementioned stir-fry or add to soups, eggs, or noodle dishes.
For some reason, ramps are the culinary darling of spring ingredients. Everyone from big-time chefs like Mario Batali to magazines like Bon Appétit goes gaga for ramps. Foraged from shady wooded areas, ramps are wild leeks with a pungent flavor that is a cross between garlic and onion. Since ramps are so high in demand that they are one of the first vegetables to go at farmers markets, so if you want to try cooking with them, arrive early. Ramps are foraged—it’s a labor-intensive job to scour a wet wood hunting for the long flat leafs—and not cultivated; therefore they can be costly. Be sure to clean them throughly to remove any dirt that accumulated while growing. Store in a paper towel in an unsealed plastic bag in the fridge. Ramps can be used like leeks; grill them whole and enjoy as is, or slice, sauté, and serve them as a side dish. Ramps are also great in pesto, are delicious on pizza, and make awesome pickles.
Although watercress is available year round, it peaks in spring, from April until June. It is a small, crisp, peppery green member of the mustard family. Shop for watercress at major grocery chains or local farmer stands. Look for healthy, bright green leaves that have a fresh, spicy scent. Store wrapped in a paper towel in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Watercress is a nutrient-dense powerhouse vegetable filled with all sorts of good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Use watercress in sandwiches, soups, salads, and green juices.
Below are culinary tools that will make cooking these spring vegetables a snap!
Have you cooked with any of these spring veggies? What is your favorite?