Spring has finally emerged from the depths of winter, accompanied by a cornucopia of gorgeously green produce. Hearty winter root vegetables have ceased their prominence on farms and gardens while brightly-flavored delicacies emerge, providing a fresh, welcome shift in the contents of our meals. In honor of these spring vegetables, I’d like to introduce you to four of my favorite lesser-known early-year produce varieties.
Also known as wild leeks, ramps resemble bulbous scallions with purple-streaked broad, feathery leaves. Ramps impart a uniquely pungent flavor, reminiscent of both onions and garlic, to soups, salads, sautés and rice and potato dishes. In West Virginia, the National Ramp Association hosts a ramp festival, called “Feast of the Ramson,” every April.
Though most have undoubtedly encountered green asparagus before, they may not know that the springtime stalks also come in purple-hued varieties. Originally cultivated in Italy, purple asparagus harbors a less fibrous texture and a sweeter flavor than its green counterpart, due to its 20 percent higher sugar content. Purple asparagus draws its color from high levels of anthocyanins—potent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer antioxidants.
For a brief window of about three weeks every May, furled green fern tips known as fiddleheads appear at farmers markets. Harvested as they push their way through the forest floor, uncurling slowly, fiddleheads taste like a cross between asparagus and green beans, and work well in sautéed, grilled and fried applications. A word of warning—one must thoroughly cook fiddleheads before consuming them, because they contain a toxin that causes stomach pain when eaten raw.
Perhaps my favorite of all the springtime produce, the last ingredient I’d like to discuss also costs the most: the elusive and delicate morel mushroom. Morels earn their high price tag due to their high fragility, perishability and resistance to cultivation. Resembling grey, beehive-shaped sponges, morels harbor a smoky, nutty, earthy flavor superior to any other fungi. Cook them as soon as possible after purchasing, simply sautéed in oil, either alone or with asparagus.
The below recipe—a verdant pasta dish bursting with springtime ingredients more easily found around the Vassar campus—features a vegan version of parmesan cheese, made from heart-healthy nuts and vitamin B12-rich nutritional yeast. As opposed to baker’s yeast, nutritional yeast grows on either sugarcane or molasses and imparts a cheesy, savory flavor to just about any dish. Try it sprinkled on popcorn! Or, for those who are not strictly vegan, full-dairy parmesan cheese is an equally valid option. You can find nutritional yeast at any health food store, including House of Nutrition.
Spring Pea and Asparagus Pasta
Recipe adapted from Aida Mollenkamp.
2 tbsp + 2 tsp nutritional yeast
2/3 cups raw unsalted walnuts or cashews
2 tsp salt
1 lb whole grain pasta, gluten-free if needed (shells, orecchiette, fusilli or linguine will work)
3 tbsp olive oil, divided
5 shallots, quartered lengthwise and sliced very thinly crosswise
1 lb asparagus (the thinner, the better), woody ends snapped off, and cut in ½-inch slices diagonally
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups shelled fresh or frozen English peas (defrosted if frozen)
2 tsp grated lemon zest (from one lemon)
2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about ½ lemon)
1 cup roughly chopped mixed herbs (parsley, chives, mint and tarragon all work well)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the nutritional yeast, walnuts or cashews, and salt. Process the ingredients until a smooth powder forms. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of heavily-salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than denoted by the package instructions. Reserve two cups of the pasta water, then drain the rest of the pasta.
While the pasta cooks, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a very large frying pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the shallots, season with a pinch each of salt and pepper, and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes, taking care not to burn the shallots.
Add the asparagus and garlic to the pan, and cook until the asparagus is crisp-tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook until bright green, about 2 minutes.
Add the drained pasta to the pan along with 1 cup of the reserved pasta water. Toss to coat. Cook until the sauce starts to coat the pasta, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer its contents to a large serving bowl. Add ¾ of the powdered nut/nutritional yeast mixture and the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the bowl and stir well to coat, adding more pasta water as needed so that the sauce just clings to the pasta.
Stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, and herbs. Taste and adjust seasonings—add a pinch of salt, red pepper flakes, and/or another squeeze of lemon juice, as required. Garnish with remaining powdered nut/nutritional yeast mixture, a pinch of black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired. Serve immediately.
Pasta leftovers will keep well for a couple of days in a refrigerated airtight container.