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The first thing I do after tearing off the February page of my calendar is look up the day of the vernal equinox; in other words, the first day of spring. For those who haven’t checked yet, it’s March 20 this year.
As Canadians, we know that the calendar and Mother Nature are not necessarily in sync. I’ve marked the vernal equinox in howling winds and soft rains, in driving snow and even, once or twice, in golden sunshine. But it doesn’t make a difference to me: After that specific moment, I know the days will become longer than the nights, and the earth will spring forth with a progression of delicious, local offerings to make life colourful, flavourful and full of light once again.
If you’re like me, the changing of seasons can affect the way you grocery shop and cook. Here are some of my favourite fruits and vegetables to seek out in spring, as well as simple, delicious ways to let their freshness and seasonality shine. Plus, find a few money-saving tips when shopping for these seasonal stars.
While actually a vegetable, this delicious and beautiful stem is often paired with strawberries in pies to offset its sourness. Want to try new ways with rhubarb? Chop it up and simmer it with a big spoonful of sugar and a little water to make a sweet-tart compote to enjoy alone or over ice cream. Another idea? Make it into a pretty, seasonal drink: Combine 2 cups of chopped fresh rhubarb with 1/2 cup of water and 1/4 cup of sugar. Bring to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb is very soft and starting to fall apart. Pour mixture through a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl, pressing on solids to release their liquid. Discard solids and cool the syrup, then distribute among four glasses. Fill will sparkling water or prosecco and garnish with fresh mint.
Tip: Early rhubarb (aka “forced rhubarb”) is delicious and tender, but it can be pricey. More economical field rhubarb comes a little later in the season. Better yet, be a do-it-yourselfer and grow your own!
Local asparagus tastes so much better than stems that have travelled far and long, so make the most of the season, which runs from early to late spring. Asparagus spears can be roasted in a single layer in a 400-degree F oven (watch them; they’ll cook fast!) or cooked and pureed into a beautiful spring soup. In pastas and risottos, asparagus pairs nicely with flavours such as lemon and dill. Best of all, fat, fresh asparagus can simply be peeled from about halfway down with a vegetable peeler, gently simmered and served warm with a lemony-mayo dip – the essence of spring!
Tip: Watch for specials during the peak of asparagus season, when the supply is ample and you can stock up for better value.
Fresh peas and fava beans
Sugar snap peas are now available year-round, but nothing beats the tender sweetness of shelling peas, which thrive before the coolness of spring gives way to the heat of summer. Cook them very lightly and serve with butter and maybe a little mint (if you haven’t eaten them all fresh before you get the chance). Fresh fava beans come in a much larger pod; shell them, cook the beans and peel off the thin skins before enjoying favas in much the same ways you would peas. You can also mash favas with olive oil and Parmesan and spread onto a toasted baguette as a snack or a seasonal appetizer.
Tip: Fresh shelling peas are an old-fashioned crop that is coming back into vogue. If you can’t find them at the grocery store, look online to see when they’ll be in season in your area, and visit farmers markets and farm shops.
June is strawberry month in many parts of Canada, and the tender, flavourful berries from nearby are an entirely different breed from the tougher varieties developed to travel long distances. Bring them home and show them some love: Bake them into crumble or fold them, with whipped cream, into fools. You can simmer them for jam or enjoy them the simplest (and most delicious) of all ways in my opinion: Just halve (small) or slice (larger) berries, sprinkle with a little sugar and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Finish with a light crack of pepper before serving.
Tip: Many strawberry growers run pick-your-own farms where you can gather your own berries for a fraction of the cost. You cannot get fresher berries – and the day spent in nature is a gift with purchase.
Bonny Reichert is a chef, food journalist and author of the upcoming memoir, How to Share an Egg: A True Story of Love, Hunger and Plenty.
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