For me, spring mornings usually start with enjoying coffee on my terrace before biking to work. On weekends, the mild weather and the budding greens often inspire me to go on longer bike rides along the Brooklyn waterfront or up and down the Hudson River on the West Side.
With the coming of spring, new ingredients and new flavors also emerge. As a chef, one of the most important things to do is to cook in season. I like to hunt for the freshest ingredients and make dishes that spotlight them. My day often includes a trip to one of the wonderful farmers markets we have in the city to scout ingredients for my restaurant, Tertulia.
Keeping fresh in spring
At Tertulia, we love to take advantage of spring ingredients we find at the market. We’ll change the menu to adapt existing dishes to the season, and we’ll also create some new items to highlight the fresh ingredients we find.
One of our more popular items is paella, which always changes depending on what’s available. During the winter, it featured ingredients like ox tail, bone marrow, and squash. But now we’re using spring vegetables like fiddleheads, ramps, and asparagus. Every night we also have blackboard specials for experimental dishes inspired by the freshest ingredients that come in from the market that day.
The dish that really screams “spring!” at Tertulia is our new market salad. It’s super fresh and flavorful. It’s a mix of baby kale and baby lettuces, with roasted vegetables like asparagus and baby carrots. We add thinly sliced radish and crispy quinoa for a bit of crunch, aged Mahón cheese, and top it with a fino sherry vinaigrette. We roast the vegetables in our wood-fired grill, so even though the salad is served room temperature, the vegetables have a really nice, subtle smokiness that makes for a very rich, robust salad.
Spring to me also means growing my own vegetables. For years, before my wife Lynn and I moved to our new place last fall, I maintained a modest garden on the roof of my apartment. Aside from caring for the herbs and vegetables growing in the raised beds each morning, the mild weather and new greens made for a relaxing place to unwind.
Lynn and I often had friends over to enjoy the patio set up in the middle of the planters. We entertained and cooked over the large propane-fueled burner fixed atop the roof, and we’d use some of the ingredients we harvested that day.
Gardening in the city obviously presents its own set of challenges. The roof got great sun during the day, but since we were in the middle of Manhattan, there were some surrounding buildings that blocked the light later in the day. Because of this, I was forced to grow vegetables and greens that are hardy. For spring, that means planting tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, peppers, squash, and different kinds of herbs.
I used a series of raised beds for the greens and planted tomatoes in deep pots and on a trellis. I also had pole beans winding up my fire escape. I even had a simple irrigation system to make it easy to maintain. I always tried to bring vegetables and herbs into the restaurant as often as I could, not in huge quantities, but enough to make some special dishes once in a while.
I miss the garden, but someday we might start a new one. For now, I might try to plant some potted herbs at our new home to use for special occasions.
Cooking in season is key
Cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients is really important to me. I am obsessed with the providence of food. I want to know that the animals I am eating were raised happy and that my vegetables were handled delicately. Cooking with good ingredients that have not been processed makes a huge difference in how we feel.
Your pantry in spring should include things like good eggs, healthy birds, sweet peas, crispy asparagus, and fresh berries.
There are many spring ingredients like these that become heroes to me, not just because of how they come alive in my recipes, but also because of the good things they do for my body.
I’m not a nutritionist or a dietitian. I’m a chef. But as I’ve learned through my own research, many of the things that we eat are not only delicious, but they can also be very good for us.
As it turns out, many of the ingredients that I already love to cook with happen to fall into this category. I call these ingredients my hero foods, and with each new season come new ingredients to use in my cooking.
Here are some of my favorite spring ingredients and recipes.
Spring means finding real farm eggs with bright, vibrant orange yolks. Quality eggs should have shells that are hard to break. They come from happy, healthy chickens with room to run around. And they contain more vitamin A and E and beta-carotene than eggs that come from caged chickens. Do some research to find a place nearby that sells quality eggs. My spring routine includes visiting a farmers market a few blocks away to buy eggs directly from the people who raise them. Recipe with eggs.
As a child, I spent time foraging for morel mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, and wild ramps with my mother. She would scramble our harvest with our own farm eggs.
Asparagus can be either green or white. Because it is typically covered by straw before it is harvested (and therefore doesn’t get direct sunlight), white asparagus lacks the chlorophyll that turns the vegetable green. As a result, white asparagus usually has a milder taste.
I prefer cooking with thinner asparagus that are more delicate. When the stems get too big, they take on a woody texture and are not as flavorful. Recipe with asparagus.
I love using sorel and dandelion greens with the asparagus, but this salad is just as delicious with spinach.
Fresh leeks can be used in many dishes and are a great ingredient. Even alone, they can simply be tossed in a little olive oil and grilled to make a really delicious side dish. Prepare them by trimming off the roots and then separate the white part from the greens. Then use a sharp pairing knife to make a slit under the base of the bulb and rinse them under cold water to remove any sand. Recipe with leeks.
This chilled spring garlic soup with baby leeks, spring peas, and soft-shell crab reminds me of the great chilled soups of Spain, but with a nice twist.