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Spring’s First Crops
Exploring the lighter side of fresh

After a long season of seemingly endless winter squashes and hearty leafy greens, the first pops of color at the farmers’ market each spring inspire hope and nostalgia for favorite seasonal recipes. The vivid colors hint at the bounty to unfold over the next few months as options turn from lean to abundant.


If winter’s challenge is finding a new use for the same squash, spring’s challenge is to keep pace with and embrace each addition to the farmers’ market table with an open hand. A slow trickle at first, soon the flood of new items each week borders on overwhelming.


But first, even before the ground begins to thaw, the warmer days and frosty nights bring maple syrup, as the freezing and thawing cycles set the sap running. Maple syrup is perfect this time of year, as it can be cozy and warm in a deeply spiced cake or it can add nuance to bright, pungent flavors such as ginger and soy.


These brighter flavors pair well with lighter fare—asparagus and radishes—that appear on plates as the snow mounds shrink and the deep frost loosens its grip on the soil.


Early spring is fickle, though, as cold mornings give way to warm, sunny afternoons that slip away as the sun and mercury sink together when night falls. These days invite warm, hearty meals that incorporate bright, fresh vegetables. Risotto answers the call beautifully, simultaneously warming the kitchen and embracing barely cooked vegetables such as shell peas.


After a long season of au gratin casseroles, slow cooker stews, and thick soups bubbling away on the stove all day, faster meals offer a welcome change of pace. As the temperature climbs, quicker, lighter meals, such as a pasta with greens, allow for more time spent outside, catching the last rays of each day’s sunshine. Stirring tender greens into a pot of creamy pasta also satisfies the urge to blend comfort with the fresh and vibrant.


Simple preparations also suit the delicate, fleeting flavors that characterize this time of year: ramps, fiddleheads, nettles, and morels. Other ephemeral foods, such as rhubarb and garlic scapes, however, shine in recipes that tame and temper their strong flavors, finding just the right ingredients to balance their assertive personalities. These are the ingredients that entice cookbooks off the shelf, in search of the perfect recipe to showcase the week’s market find.


By the time late spring sidles in, the tables at the market are piled high and the challenge becomes tempering enthusiasm to avoid bringing home more lush, brightly colored fruits and vegetables than can be consumed before freshness wanes. Thinking realistically about how many meals will be cooked at home that week is helpful to counter this impulse to overbuy.


When temptation proves irresistible, planning to use delicate, perishable items like lettuces and berries first and saving heartier foods such as peas and radishes for later in the week stretches the abundance of the market until next week’s colorful heaps of fruits and vegetables beckon.


Spinach and Arugula Salad with Bacon and Sautéed Mushrooms


Serves 4


For the Salad

2 large eggs

4 slices bacon

8 ounces mushrooms, sliced

4 cups spinach, stems removed

4 cups baby arugula

½ cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped

½ cup pickled red onions, recipe follows


For the Vinaigrette

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 medium shallot, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon real maple syrup, ideally Grade B/Grade A: Dark Color and Robust Flavor

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ tablespoon fresh thyme


To hard boil eggs, place 2 eggs in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down to maintain the water at a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, drain water, and immediately run cold water over eggs to cool. Replace with fresh cold water and set eggs aside to cool for 10 minutes.  Once cool, peel, slice in half, and set aside.


Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the bacon and cook, turning frequently, just until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but 2 teaspoons of the bacon fat. 


Return the skillet to the stove and increase the heat to medium. Sauté the mushrooms in the bacon fat, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are golden brown. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate to cool for a few minutes.


Combine the spinach and arugula in a large serving bowl. Pour about half of the dressing over the salad, toss, and add more dressing if needed. There will likely be leftover dressing. Crumble the cooled bacon over the greens. Scatter the eggs, mushrooms, pecans, and pickled red onions over the greens. Serve immediately.


For the Vinaigrette

Heat the teaspoon of olive oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and sauté, stirring frequently, until soft and golden brown. Transfer to a mini food processor or blender. Add the balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, maple syrup, and Dijon mustard. Blend until shallots are broken down. Add the fresh thyme and pulse for 1 second to incorporate the thyme throughout the dressing. Set aside.


Greek Radish and Lentil Salad


Serves 6


For the Salad

1 cup French green or brown lentils

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

¾ teaspoon dried oregano

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

4 large bunches of radishes, ideally with greens

4 ounces feta cheese, coarsely crumbled

¾ cup pickled red onions, recipe follows

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar


Cook the lentils according to package directions, stopping cooking early enough for the lentils to retain their shape. Drain and transfer to a medium-size, non-reactive bowl. Add lemon zest, juice, and oregano; stir to combine. Then add 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and stir (this allows the lentils to absorb the lemon before being coated in oil). Set aside to cool.


Trim the leaves and root ends from the radishes. Discard the root ends. If the leaves are in good condition, wash, dry, and spread out on a serving platter. Otherwise, discard. Clean, dry, and thinly slice the radishes. 


Spread the lentils over the radish greens, if using, or on a serving platter. Arrange the radish slices on top. Sprinkle the feta evenly over the radishes, then arrange ¾ cup of the pickled red onions over the top. Drizzle with the vinegar and remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Serve immediately. 


For the Pickled Red Onions

1 medium red onion, halved crosswise and very thinly sliced pole-to-pole

½ cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup water

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 small bay leaf


Place the onions in a medium-size, non-reactive bowl and set aside.


Combine the remaining ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan and set over high heat. Stir and bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the onions. Press down on the onions so they are almost submerged in the liquid.


Set aside to cool and marinate for at least 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the onions may be used or transferred to an airtight container and refrigerated for up to several weeks. The sharp bite of the onion lessens over time. Remove the bay leaf just before using the onions. 


Maple and Soy Glazed Salmon with Asparagus


Serves 4


¼ cup real maple syrup, ideally Grade B/Grade A: Dark Color and Robust Flavor

¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 garlic cloves, crushed

16 ounces boneless salmon fillets

1 tablespoon olive oil

1½ tablespoon peeled, grated fresh ginger

½ bunch spring onions, thinly sliced, white and light green parts separated from dark green parts

1 cup uncooked quinoa

1½ cups water

2 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons extra-light olive oil

2 bunches asparagus, tough woody ends removed

2 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted

Lime wedges, for serving


Preheat the oven to 425°. In a small mixing bowl, combine the maple syrup, soy sauce, and garlic; whisk to combine. Arrange salmon in a single layer in a glass baking dish and pour ⅓ of the soy-maple sauce over the fillets. Bake the salmon for about 15 minutes, pouring another ⅓ of the sauce over the fish every 5 minutes. The fish will flake easily with a fork when done. Remove from the oven, cover loosely with foil, and set aside.


While the salmon is baking, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the ginger and the white and light green parts of the spring onion to the oil and sauté for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the quinoa and stir constantly for 30 seconds to toast the quinoa. Add the water, cover, and turn heat to high to bring to a boil. Turn heat down to maintain a simmer for 10–15 minutes, until quinoa is tender and all liquid is absorbed. Stir in sesame oil and dark green parts of spring onions. Cover and set aside.


In a large skillet with a lid, heat the extra-light olive oil over medium-low heat. Arrange the asparagus in a single layer, cover and cook for 7 minutes, stirring once halfway through. Remove the lid, turn up heat to medium-high, and cook for about 2 more minutes, turning frequently, until brown spots develop. Remove from heat.


Serve topped with sesame seeds, passing lime wedges.


Pasta with Peas, Arugula, and Crème Fraîche


Serves 4


10 ounces dried shell-shaped pasta

1 cup shelled peas (5¼ ounces thawed frozen may be substituted)

8 ounces crème fraîche

2 lemons

3 ounces baby arugula

2 ounces (scant ⅔ cup) grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for serving

½ cup torn fresh mint leaves


Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook the pasta as directed. If using fresh peas, add them to the pot 2 minutes before the pasta is done. Drain and transfer the cooked pasta and peas back to the pot.


While the pasta is cooking, add the crème fraîche to a small mixing bowl. Zest the two lemons into the bowl, then juice them and add the juice to the mixture. Whisk to combine thoroughly. 


Transfer the crème fraîche mixture to the pot with the drained pasta and stir well to combine. Add the arugula (and peas, if using thawed frozen), Parmesan, and mint; stir gently to combine. Serve immediately, passing additional Parmesan.


Asparagus and Peas Spring Risotto


Serves 6


1 large leek

2 teaspoons extra-light olive oil

1 bunch thin asparagus spears, tough woody ends removed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large shallots, minced

2 large cloves of garlic, minced

1½ cups Arborio rice

⅔ cup dry white wine

5 cups low sodium chicken broth

1½ cups shelled fresh peas (10 ounces thawed frozen may be substituted)

2 lemons

⅓ cup mascarpone cheese

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for serving

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives, plus additional for serving


Preheat the oven to 425°.


Trim the root end off the leek and discard. Slice the leek lengthwise, then chop crosswise into ½-inch segments. Transfer the chopped leeks to a large bowl of cold water and swish around to rinse well. Drain and repeat until the water is clear. Leeks trap sand and grit in between the layers and require thorough rinsing. Drain and spin dry or spread out on a clean kitchen towel to dry.


In a large skillet with a lid, heat the 2 teaspoons of extra-light olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the asparagus spears and cover. Cook for 6 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking time. Remove lid, turn heat up to medium-high, and cook for about 2 minutes, turning frequently, until asparagus develops brown spots. Transfer to cutting board to cool, then chop into 1-inch lengths. Set aside.


In a large Dutch oven or oven-safe soup pot, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Once hot, add the leeks. Sauté for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the shallots and garlic. Sauté for 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant but not yet browning. 


Add the rice and stir constantly for 1 minute to coat the rice in oil. Add the white wine and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until the wine is nearly all absorbed. Pour in all of the broth at once, turn the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, stir again, put the lid on the pot, and transfer the pot to the oven.


Bake for 20–22 minutes, until the grains of rice are tender. The liquid should also be nearly absorbed by this point (the risotto will continue to absorb the broth as it sits). If there is excess liquid, bake the risotto, uncovered, for a few more minutes. 


While the risotto is baking, blanch fresh peas in boiling water for 1 minute, then drain and run under cold water. (Frozen peas just need to be defrosted, not blanched.)


Zest and then juice the 2 lemons into a small, non-reactive bowl. Stir to break up any clumps of lemon zest.


When the risotto is done baking, immediately stir in the chopped asparagus and drained peas. Add the lemon zest and juice, mascarpone, Parmesan, and chives; stir thoroughly to combine. Let sit 2 minutes, then serve, passing additional Parmesan and chives.


Spiced Parsnip Cake with Ginger Maple Cream Cheese Frosting


For the Cake

1½ cups flour

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1½ teaspoons cinnamon

¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¾ teaspoon ground allspice

¾ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

½ cup extra-light olive oil

½ cup buttermilk or whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups packed, shredded peeled parsnips from 3 medium–large parsnips (11 ounces)


For the Frosting

16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

4 packed teaspoons peeled, grated fresh ginger

⅔ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

4 tablespoons pure maple syrup, ideally Grade B/Grade A: Dark Color and Robust Flavor


Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter the sides and bottoms of 2 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper circles, then butter the parchment paper and flour all of the insides of each pan.


In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and salt. 


In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the eggs. Whisk in the oil, buttermilk, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir gently with a wooden spoon just until combined. Gently stir in the parsnips. 


Divide the batter evenly between the 2 prepared pans and bake for about 22 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out without any streaks of batter (moist crumbs are OK). 


Once the cakes are done, remove from the oven and place the pans on wire cooling racks for 10 minutes. After the cakes have cooled in the pans for 10 minutes, run a thin spatula or butter knife gently around the edge of the pan to loosen any areas that may be stuck. Place a wire rack over the top of the cake and turn the whole unit upside down to release the cake. Repeat with the other cake pan. Remove parchment from both cakes and let them cool completely.


While the cakes are cooling, use an electric mixer to beat the cream cheese and butter together in a large bowl until smooth. Add the vanilla and ginger; beat to mix in thoroughly. Gradually add the sifted confectioners’ sugar in small batches, beating well after each addition, to avoid lumps. Pour in the maple syrup and beat briefly until smooth. The frosting is easiest to spread at room temperature but should be covered and refrigerated if it won’t be used in the next hour or two. Allow to come to room temperature before spreading.


To assemble the cake, set one completely cooled layer on a serving plate. Spread approximately one-third of the frosting evenly across the bottom layer. Set the second cake layer over the frosted first layer and spread another one-third of the frosting across the top layer of cake. Use the remaining one-third of the frosting to frost the sides of the cake. Serve at room temperature. Cake keeps best when stored covered in the refrigerator. 


Kate Rogers is a successful food blogger. She has had a passion for and been creating things in the kitchen since she was in elementary school, has spent a lifetime creating and photographing her culinary creations and is thrilled to share them with the world.

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