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Celebrating Early Spring Greens

April 26, 2014
Nancy Berkoff

It certainly is easy eating green!

Cabbage, cilantro, parsley, Swiss chard, green peppers, chilies, leeks, scallions and chives, snow peas, petit pois (young green peas), spinach, kale, collards, mustard and beet greens, romaine, and endive are just some of the greenery we can use to brighten our spring menu! 

FENNEL FLAVORS

You can call it Florence fennel, you can call it sweet anise, you can even call it finocchio; however you name it, spring is the time to enjoy fennel. Learn to recognize fennel by its white Disney-esque celery stalk, tapering off to skinny (like the diameter of your index finger) stalks and ending with feathery leaves, reminiscent in shape of fresh dill. Fennel has a mild licorice aroma and flavor. Used correctly, it is absolutely intoxicating.

Fennel can be eaten raw. Just de-string the bulb and the stalks with a vegetable peeler and crunch on it as you would celery. Or, buy a bagged salad, slice some fresh fennel, and toss in some walnuts, and you have an upscale salad with no fuss.

FRESH BEANS FOR SPRING

Think you need a vitamin pill to get vitamin C, vitamin A, folic acid, thiamin, iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium? You don't! You just need a plate of fresh beans. Over 7000 years ago, civilizations in Mexico and Peru were cultivating beans. Eating beans is a good recommendation that has stood the test of time.

When we're talking fresh beans, we're talking about all the varieties of green beans, wax beans and fresh flageolet, lima, butter beans (baby lima beans), and black-eyed peas harvested in the spring. Think that lima beans are too starchy and grainy for you? Try to round up some fresh limas or butter beans before they are dried (or frozen or canned.) You'll find they are sweet, soft, and oh-so-good.

Fresh green beans vary in color, texture, and size, depending on the variety of seed used and growing region. There are the snooty haricots verts, Greyhound slender green beans used in salade Niçoise, and stocky snap beans. Green beans can be purple, striped, or dotted with red. Wax beans can be pale beige to sunny yellow. Both green and wax beans can be eaten uncooked as a snack or tossed into any kind of salad. They can also be steamed or grilled and served as a side dish.

COOKIN' GREEN CABBAGE

Fresh tender heads of green spring cabbage are a versatile ingredient for your spring menu. Separate leaves for wrapping savory mixtures of cornbread or whole wheat stuffing, or stuff with rice, chopped veggies, and nuts. Try shredding green cabbage for use in stir-fries, soups, and stews.

Green cabbage holds up just fine to light steaming and a toss with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Bok choy (Asian cabbage with a sweet-tasting stalk and leaves that resemble spinach) and Napa cabbage (a pale green cabbage that resembles Romaine lettuce), are also agreeable to being steamed or tossed with seasoning or salad dressings of your choice.

Cabbage is known for its prominence in Irish dishes, and the traditional Irish dish, colcannon, can easily go vegan. Mix sautéed onions and cabbage into mashed potatoes and serve as is, or shape into potato cakes coated with breadcrumbs and bake. The cabbage adds texture and nutrients to the mashed potatoes. The addition of silken tofu or Ener-G egg substitute to colcannon brings you to a colcannon croquette, once formed into triangles and baked in the oven. If you're in a time crunch, prepare colcannon with pre-shredded bagged cabbage and instant vegan mashed potatoes.

HUNTING THE A-LUSIVE ASPARAGUS

Asparagus can be found as a green, purple, or white vegetable. Green asparagus usually has the most flavor and is the most robust of all three. Purple asparagus looks pretty when raw, but will convert to mostly green when cooked. Asparagus does not like to sit around for very long. If you plan to keep your asparagus in the refrigerator for more than a day, place the asparagus in a clean vase or glass, fill with water, and store as an asparagus "bouquet" in the back of the refrigerator, where it is coldest.

Asparagus doesn't benefit from a great deal of handling. For perfectly cooked asparagus, fill a frying pan with water and bring it to a boil. Trim a small amount of the stem ends, wash, and plunge into the boiling water. Turn constantly, and in about three minutes you'll have perfectly cooked asparagus. Remove from the water, rinse quickly under cold water, or place in an ice bath (equal parts cold water and ice) until the heat is removed. Serve immediately as a warm vegetable, or chill in the refrigerator to be used as a cold snack or salad ingredient

To create a cream of asparagus soup, you'll want to peel the asparagus first, just like you peel a carrot. The cellulose exterior gives asparagus great "chew," but does not blend very well. Cook, then blend the asparagus. Then simply add your blended cooked asparagus to your favorite potato soup recipe for subtle color and flavor.

GREEN NUTRITION

Here are some nutrition notes to use as "selling" points for a 4-ounce serving of green spring veggies:

Romaine lettuce has 2600 IU of vitamin A, 24 mg of vitamin C, and 36 mg of calcium (as opposed to iceberg lettuce, which has 330 IU of A, 4 mg of C and 19 mg of calcium). Romaine isn't just for Caesar salad; try braising it in a small amount of veggie stock and serving as a side dish, or using it to replace your pasta "bed" in an entree.

Endive (also known as chicory, or if it's red, radicchio) has 4000 IU of vitamin A, 24 mg of vitamin C, and 100 mg of calcium. Shred it and use it in green, pasta, or tofu salads or as a crunchy garnish for soups or stews.

Kale is the king of green, boasting 8900 IU of vitamin A, 120 mg of vitamin C, and 135 mg of calcium. Kale can be chopped raw and added to salads, or used as a garnish for soups, stews, and casseroles. Steam it quickly with a small amount of garlic and chopped onion and serve as a side dish.

Escarole (broad-leafed chicory) has 2000 IU of vitamin A, 6 mg of vitamin C, and 187 mg of calcium. It's very high in fiber, with a peppery, astringent taste. Escarole is a good counterpoint to mild lettuce in green salads, or shred it for topping stir-fries and soups.

Boston or Bibb lettuce is a sweet green with 970 IU of vitamin A, 8 mg of vitamin C, and 35 mg of calcium. Use in salads or as a wrapper for spring rolls stuffed with cooked rice, barley, and chopped greens.

What's your favorite recipe that uses early spring greens? Share it with us in the comments!

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