Cold days and nights are now a thing of the past. The sun is shining longer and daytime temperatures are on the rise. The pleasant smell of freshly mowed lawns and flowering plants indicates that spring is in the air and nature is waking up after a long winter sleep.
Spring greets us with open hands and the treasures of the season are making their way to the region’s markets, including some of the three favourites: tender asparagus, freshly picked sweet peas and, oh yes, those well-loved sweet onions. loved ones of Vidalia.
Spring vegetables are perhaps the most fetishized of all produce. After months of eating root vegetables, cabbage, and other hard, hearty things, we’re all ready for a change — something more delicate, something that doesn’t increase your starch intake with every bite. .
Crabtree Farms community farmer Lauren Russek says the wait for spring vegetables has increased since fields were prepared at the end of winter and the first set of plants went into the ground, including peas and onions.
Now they are starting to appear.
“It’s an exciting time around the farm,” says Russek.
What cook hasn’t longed for the fresh flavors of the first spring asparagus or smiled in pure delight when the taste buds encounter the sweet taste of spring peas?
Although Crabtree Farms doesn’t grow asparagus, you’ll find Michael Raines munching on his fresh asparagus every morning as he feeds his chickens at his family’s Frontier Farm in Altamont, Tennessee.
“It’s my favorite snack every morning,” he says.
Raines started planting asparagus 15 years ago, and although it’s now prolific, establishing his crop wasn’t easy.
“It requires a year-long planting process,” he says. “But aside from composting it every year, it will continue to produce for 15 years or more.”
When he’s not on the farm snacking, he often packs his asparagus, along with other spring produce — lettuce, spinach and sugar snap peas — to sell at Mooney’s Emporium on Main Street in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Thanks to the World Garden, it is possible to find sweet onions all year round, but it is only at this time of year that Vidalia onions fill the produce markets, waiting for the palates of the South.
This year’s crop looks strong, says Chris Tyson, Vidalia onion agent for the University of Georgia Extension Service.
“Producers are thrilled,” he says. “They have worked hard this year.”
On their own, this trio of springtime favorites – Vidalia’s, peas and asparagus – make for wonderful dishes.
Vidalia Onion Soup with Aged Cheddar and Parsley Pesto
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds Vidalia onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
8 cups chicken broth (preferably homemade)
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted
1 pound aged cheddar cheese, grated
2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan
Salt and pepper
For the soup:
Melt the butter with the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, about 40 minutes.
Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add brandy and sherry and boil until almost completely evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk together broth and thyme, bring to a boil and cook until soup thickens slightly, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Preheat your oven grill. Place the jars on a baking sheet. Place a slice of bread in the bottom of each jar. Fill up to three quarters with soup. Place another slice of bread on top of the soup and spread the cheese over it. Grill 2-3 minutes. Garnish each with a spoonful of parsley pesto.
To make pesto:
Combine parsley and garlic in a food processor or blender and blend until coarsely chopped. With the engine running, slowly add the oil. Add cheese and season with salt and pepper.
Risotto with fresh spring peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, diced
4 minced garlic cloves
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups fresh peas, quickly blanched
Pea tendrils (for garnish, if desired)
Kosher salt and white pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallot and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the Arborio rice to the pan, making sure to toss it in the olive oil so that each pellet is coated, and toast it for about 90 seconds.
Add the white wine and stir the rice until all the wine has been absorbed, then start adding the chicken broth 1/2 cup at a time, being careful not to add any until the previous addition is absorbed.
Once the rice is just tender, add the parmesan and mascarpone and mix. Add the previously blanched peas and gently mix with the risotto. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with pea tendrils, if available, and a squeeze or two of lemon juice and serve.
Substituting thin asparagus spears for the pasta gives this carbonara the same irresistible pancetta-cheese-egg flavor, but with bright green asparagus in the center.
4 ounces pancetta, finely diced
1 pound fresh thin asparagus, trimmed and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
2 large egg yolks lightly beaten
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until crispy, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain off excess fat, leaving just enough to coat the pan. Add the asparagus and 2 tablespoons of water, and cook over moderately high heat until the asparagus is tender, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and immediately add the egg yolks and butter to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until butter is melted. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.