After a long, dark winter, the lush unfurling of springtime is a benediction. The regeneration of the natural world is energizing and inspiring, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the intense “circle-of-life” reflection that the season can bring, spring finds me wanting to lighten up. Culinarily speaking, I crave brightness and simplicity, which can be easily found in spring produce: baby asparagus, fava beans, and new peas, to be precise, all of which have made appearances on our dinner table in recent weeks.
A couple of months ago, I was browsing the culinary section of a used bookstore in DUMBO when I chanced upon Amarcord, a memoir by Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking. Hazan’s forthright description of springtime vignarola is proof positive that Italians are unparalleled when it comes to showcasing the intrinsic glories of seasonal produce.
You must be there at just the one moment in the spring when baby fava beans, small rosebud artichokes, and very small peas, all at the same early stage of development, appear in the market at the identical time. If it should last more than two weeks, it is a lucky year; a month, a prodigy. You also need some cipollotti, young onions, and a small head of romaine lettuce. The onion is sliced and cooked in olive oil until it is very soft. You add the lettuce, the trimmed artichokes, the shelled beans and peas, and cook. The vegetables are so young that it doesn’t take very long. When done, it doesn’t look very presentable. It is a dark, mushy mass that you might think a careless cook had produced. But when you take a mouthful, it is as though spring itself in all its tenderness has been delivered in edible form.
Fava beans team up with asparagus in another quintessentially springtime preparation, which is so simple that it can scarcely be called a “recipe.” I’ve prepared this salad as a side dish, but tossed with pieces of gently poached chicken breast or topped with a broiled salmon fillet (in which case I’d omit the cheese), it can easily serve as the main event.
Spring Salad (adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl)
- 1 bunch of young asparagus
- 1 cup of cooked fresh fava beans (blanch and remove outer skins)
- generous handful of chopped mint
- 1/2 cup of shaved pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- extra virgin olive oil, to taste
- salt and pepper, to taste
- squeeze of lemon (optional)
Steam or boil the asparagus until the spears are just tender—they should retain a bit of firmness. Shock the asparagus in an ice bath and chop into 2″ pieces. Toss the asparagus and the fava beans in a couple of tablespoons of grassy extra virgin olive oil, along with the mint and cheese, then add salt and pepper to taste. For extra brightness, finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Here in New York City, outdoor space can be tough to come by, and few of us are able to eat what we’ve grown ourselves. Happily, farmer’s markets abound, bringing the verdant freshness of spring vegetables within reach. This time of year, it is easy bein’ green.