By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Outside, New York's been looking like it might have been drawn in charcoal, butbelieve it or notthis is spring, a season favored by many for its hopeful resuscitation of life. For food-lovers, that means the greenmarket is reborn, too. We love our root vegetables, but enough already. Right now, there are some very special fruits and vegetables in seasonsome for just weeks! Enjoy the best of spring before it's gone, and the tomatoes, peaches, and corn move in.
They are the quintessential "foodie" obsession during springtime. To prove you're down with some culinary hotshot, just whisper "ramps!" For your own sake, it's also good to know what you're talking about. Esoteric as they may seem, these gastronomic treasures are not unusual in taste or texture. Sometimes called "wild onions," ramps come from the onion family and are similar to leeks and scallions. They look like a cross between the two and are prepared similarly, raw or cooked. The greens and whites are edible and the taste is similar to scallions and sweet garlic.
Part of the fuss is due to their short season, usually just a few weeks. Piles of beautiful ramps from Berried Treasures can still be found at the Union Square Farmer's Market for $2.50 per bunchrun! Mario Batali, a devout follower of the seasons, features them at Babbo and provides a recipe for spaghetti with ramps on his Web site. If they are new to you, keep it simple to experience the flavor. They're versatile and add a lot to many dishes. At Applewood, sautéed ramps recently appeared with Atlantic fluke and a garlic confit. The menu changes daily, but they'll return in another incarnation soon.
Fun facts about one of the most popular vegetables around: a perennial, it's a member of the Lily family; it can be grown underground, resulting in a white variety; and then there's its famous after-affect, a less appealing characteristic. Above all, asparagus is easy to prepare and marries well with many foodsParmigiano-Reggiano, lamb, lemon, pistachio or walnut oil, eggs, butter sauces, salmon, mint, capers, anchovies, pine nuts, and on.
Asparagus can be cooked any way (even steamed in the microwave). Grilling and roasting are my favorites (let them get charred!) and both are extremely easy. Drizzle them with olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 500 degrees for 7-10 minutes, depending on thickness. Season and slice them for a pasta or risotto dish, or sauce them up for a side dish. At Alias, chef Shane Coffey offers the perfect spring risotto, with lamb, asparagus, mint pesto, and fennel. Cesare Casella tops them off with a sunny-side egg as an appetizer at Beppe.
The strangest vegetable (yes, vegetable) in season and on innovative menus around town is rhubarb. Rhubarb resembles celery, but should be bright red when in season (their poisonous leaves are removed before they hit the market). Aside from its usual dessert pairings-strawberries and, especially in England, ginger-rhubarb, which isn't sweet on its own, is being used in savory dishes left and right. It's anarchy! At 71 Clinton Fresh Food, chef Jason Neroni created sweet and sour rhubarb, and pairs it with crispy skate wing. At Gotham Bar & Grill, rhubarb and roasted plums add color and punch to a duck breast. Of course, traditionalists can stick with delightfully tart pies (Americans call rhubarb "piefruit" for its most common use), cobblers, and crisps. Try the rhubarb crumble at Ici, the grunt (something like a cross between a cobbler and a crisp) at Alias, and soon, the rhubarb sorbet at Il Laboratorio del Gelato.
The very special Fava bean has a very short season, so get to the market before they disappear. (They're at Whole Foods for $2.98 per pound). These beans, which look like giant limas in big green pods, are just not the same out of a can or dried, and are worth the trouble of peeling out of their tough skins (tip: blanch them first). Add them to a salad or pasta, or puree them for soup. At Aurora, favas and their good friend, the artichoke, make a great appetizer, "artichoke carpaccio". At Miss Williamsburg Diner, favas and shrimp are sublimely compatible with maltagliati.
Strawberries have been available for weeks, but the local season is just beginning. Small berries are much more flavorful than the commercial variety. Yuno Farms and Kernan Farms, both at the Union Square Greenmarket have small, deep red strawberries from New Jersey for about $5 a quart. Look for un-bruised berries and avoid those with already trimmed stems. Like rhubarb, strawberries are used in savory dishes as well as sweet, and go particularly well with good, aged balsamic vinegar. Experience the magic combination in an inspired salad at Alias. Local strawberries are tossed with watercress, ricotta, fried capers, and balsamic.