Spring is here. I’ll admit that when I lived in colder climates such as Vermont or Paris, the arrival of spring was more anticipated (“When can I put my boots away?!”). I remember in Burlington, Vt., we had the tradition of breaking out our swimsuits on the first day that it hit 50 degrees F, a temperature that would have me snuggling up to the fireplace now. Even in San Diego, I’m excited about spring for two reasons. First, my daughters’ spring break is around the corner, and we are hunkering down for a family staycation here in San Diego (all the family time and fun, none of the stress of travel!). And the second reason I’m eager for the end of winter is — traditional spring food! Yes, I know these days we can get many ingredients year round, but they are lackluster compared to their in-season versions. Quite simply, there are certain flavors that are just better in that magical shoulder season between winter and summer.
Here’s my ideal springtime menu, featuring seasonal ingredients that you can get at any supermarket right now:
Asparagus: I’ll start here because it’s perhaps the quintessential spring vegetable, with its tender stalk and earthy flavor. While you can get asparagus many months of the year, the flavor (and the cost!) both tell you that spring is the time to indulge. I buy several bunches a week in peak season. My methods of cooking asparagus are almost exclusively roasting or grilling: a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and about 10 minutes in a hot oven (or seven minutes on a hot grill) is all it takes to bring out the natural sweetness and earthiness. Roasted asparagus can be served hot, at room temperature or cold (toss it with a tangy mustard vinaigrette for a fresh spring salad as in my Roasted Asparagus with Lemon Vinaigrette). Or cook for even less time to make a fresh soup (try my Almost-Raw Asparagus Soup with Yogurt and Almonds — it couldn’t be easier to serve spring in a bowl).
Lamb: Spring is the season for tender baby lamb, so living in France, we saw lamb everywhere on the menu at winter’s thaw. Spring lamb (unlike the gamier lamb shoulder braises of winter) should be kept simple, to allow the mild flavor to shine. Slather lamb chops with mustard and chopped fresh herbs, grill for 3-4 minutes a side and serve. Do you have non-lamb-eaters in your house? Try my I-love-lamb-if-not-too-gamey trick: Mix half ground lamb and half ground beef or veal to make positively perfect spring burgers. Top with crumbled feta, sliced raw cucumbers, red onion, Greek yogurt and fresh mint for a perfect level of lambiness at a spring cookout.
Fennel: Most people describe the flavor of fennel as “licorice-like,” but I want you non licorice-lovers to try this underused vegetable too (before it goes out of season this summer), because the flavor truly is mild. The bulb is the main attraction (cored and quartered), although the fronds make for a nice herbal garnish in dishes. (I’ve yet to be convinced that the stalk is worth eating, but I’m open to listening to stalk enthusiasts who have a recipe that will change my mind). Fennel is best served either raw — use a mandoline to shave it thinly, then drizzle lemon, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper on top — or try it roasted. Toss the fennel bulb quarters in extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and roast until caramelized and tender, about 20 minutes. You can also try my Fennel and Cabbage Slaw as a great entry-level recipe for fennel newbies.
Fresh Berries: Berries are the favorite fruit of my whole family and they taste sweeter and juicier starting in spring. We use berries in our morning smoothies, to top plain Greek yogurt (even in a Yogurt and Granola Trifle), in a simple fruit salad, or just washed and placed in a big serving bowl on the table or counter for noshing. For a fun dessert that doubles as an art project with my kids, we make fruit sushi, which the kids decorate using fresh berries, slices of mango and even toasted coconut. Or for a more classic dessert, try my Berry Pavlovas that show off strawberries in a dreamy, creamy meringue shell with whipped cream.
What is your ideal spring dinner? Do you have any other springtime traditions? Tell me in the comment section below.