As the weather warms and the days lengthen, the long-awaited glory of spring has arrived with splashes of pink and yellow in the trees, with green leaves and buds bursting out all over.
The gentle breezes beckon us outside, and colorful lighter fare beckons at the table.
Paschal lamb and spring chickens are available at the market, but my tastes turn to veggies, especially the tender shoots, sprouts, and spears of spring.
At this time of year, it's a snap to add a splash of brightness and pizzazz to every plate at every meal. Just a snip of green herbs or green onion in a dish of buttered noodles, or slivers of bold purple radish atop an avocado bruschetta, can transition a simple dish into a new season.
Whether it's wilted fresh greens in your omelette for breakfast, or a plate of beets bursting psychedelic pink in tzatziki or soup for lunch, the colors of spring abound.
For dinner you could arrange a dramatic and showy vegetable plate in a rainbow spiral. Orange comes from bite-size carrots and/or tender golden beets. Easter egg radishes range from light purple through red.
The greens can be a study in variation. Deep-green spinach, hues of snap peas, blanched asparagus, and raw tender spring onions through the chartreuse tint of poached baby artichokes.
Satisfy your palate with this palette of spring's offerings and serve with a foccacia topped with rainbow chard, for a vibrant meal where meat won't be missed.
Pastas, bruschettas, and tarts all marry well with spring vegetables. Penne with parsley, peas, and Parmesan is not only fun to say, it's easy to make and delicious. A riff on this theme might be rice-shaped orzo tossed with snap peas with fresh herbs and cream.
Quick-wilted arugula, spinach, or chard chopped with garlic and a bit of olive oil can be tossed with pasta, spread on toast, or baked atop a simple crust for a rustic appetizer. Garnish with coarsely chopped almonds or walnuts, or a bit of grated sharp cheese, for texture and a bit of protein.
All the greens of spring can be eaten raw when young, then steamed or sautéed as they get older, larger, and less tender.
Simple salads with a mixture of tender young greens can accompany many an entrée, or become a bed for heartier fare. Leftover roast chicken, sliced lamb, or a poached egg served atop dressed escarole, frisee, spinach, or arugula along with a few new potatoes or garlic croutons and a sprinkle of herbs is fresh and flavorful - both hearty and light. Top with some frizzled spring onions or thin-sliced beets to turn weeknight leftovers into festive fare.
Local asparagus is the quintessential crop to herald spring. If you've never seen it pushing its spears out of the ground, you'd likely be surprised at the sight of seemingly tender stalks pushing straight out of the cool, firm ground.
This tender spring asparagus can be blanched gently and served warm or cold with any number of dressings, dips, and sauces. My favorite preparation is to roast the spears on an oiled baking sheet in a hot oven. In five or so minutes, the thin spears brown, lightly adding a sweetness to asparagus' grassy earthiness. A simple lemon-poppy seed vinaigrette or dill mustard sauce is an unnecessary but delightful accompaniment.
Each week as more and more farmers markets open, keep your eyes out for the rainbow as it arrives from farms and fields.
Makes 2 cups
2 medium roasted beets, peeled and grated
11/3 cups Greek-style thick yogurt
2 cloves garlic, minced fine or pressed
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Juice of half a lemon (approximately 1 tablespoon)
1/2-1 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground black pepper
1. Stir all ingredients together.
2. Chill for at least one hour, or up to two days.
3. Serve with raw or blanched vegetables.
Per quarter-cup serving: 37 calories; 4 grams protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 1 gram fat; 2 milligrams cholesterol; 177 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.
Spring Chicken on Baby Spinach, With New Potatoes and Frizzled Scallions
Makes 4 servings
1 carrot, scrubbed well, top removed, and sliced into thin coins
1 stalk celery, washed well and sliced thin
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 to 3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and fresh ground pepper
2 cups chicken broth or water
8 small new potatoes, whole or halved, depending on size
2 small boneless chicken breasts, or 6 medium chicken tenders
3 scallions (or spring onions or ramps)
1 tablespoon flour
Olive oil to fry onion. (approximately 1/4 cup)
4 to 6 cups of clean, dry, young spinach
1/4 cup vinaigrette of your choice
1. Place the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, salt, pepper, and broth in a sauté pan with high sides. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered for 12-15 minutes. Add the chicken breasts and potatoes, return to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 more minutes. Check that the potatoes are softened and cooked through. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then slice the chicken. Return to broth until ready to serve.
2. For the frizzled spring onions: slice the scallions on a bias in thin strips. Toss in small bowl with the flour, salt and pepper till coated and dump into a dry sieve to shake off excess flour. Heat a ½ inch of oil in a small pan until shimmering and quite hot. Add the flour-covered scallions and let fry until well-browned and crisp. Drain and reserve.
3. To serve, toss spinach in vinaigrette until well coated. Place spinach on a serving platter. Arrange warm chicken, potatoes (along with the poached carrots and celery if desired), on top of the spinach. Garnish with the frizzled onions on top.
4. The remaining broth and poaching vegetables can be reserved for another use.
Per serving (with chicken broth): 348 calories; 33 grams protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 18 grams fat; 88 milligrams cholesterol; 820 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.
Penne With Peas, Parmesan, and Parsley
Makes 4-6 servings
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound dry penne pasta
2/3 cup fresh or frozen English peas
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 heaping teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
1/2 cup finely minced parsley
1. Bring several quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add salt to the water along with the dried pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, according to the package directions until almost al dente (not quite soft, but no crunch). Add the peas and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
2. Drain and mix with the remaining ingredients.
3. Garnish with sprigs of parsley. Serve with additional grated Parmesan, if desired.
Per serving (based on 6): 369 calories; 15 grams protein; 60 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 8 grams fat; 22 milligrams cholesterol; 509 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.