One warm morning in May years ago, I drove by an asparagus field in my neighborhood and stopped to marvel. The evening before there had been tiny shoots no more than 2 inches out of the ground. Now they were 10 inches high and being picked by growers at Verrill Farm in Concord. I hurried to the phone at my restaurant and ordered as much as they had to sell. Competition among Boston chefs for asparagus this good is always keen. And spring in New England is so quick sometimes a cook can miss it.
Asparagus, English peas, radishes, and fava beans are spring crops all New Englanders fight for right now. Yes, I can get them year-round like most vegetables, but waiting for produce grown at our kitchen doorstep renews my love of vegetable salads. Choosing the most pristine vegetables pays big dividends.
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You can tell asparagus are really fresh when you snap one at the stem and the moisture beads up at the break. Fresh peas are super sweet when shelled and eaten raw, and favas, the ancient beans from North Africa (grown all over the world these days) are meaty and satisfying; you do need to peel each bean to remove the outer layer. Early season radishes add crunchy zip. Chervil and chives also come up early, or add tarragon to the bowl. Because they are all harvested in mid-spring, they seem to work really well together as a salad.
At the restaurant everyone pitched in to help prep the peas, and especially the favas. There is some work involved here but it’s incredibly satisfying when you’re done. Find a couple of sous chefs (read: children) and make it a group effort. You might want to buy more English peas than you need because you will start shelling and eating them raw. My wife, Fiona, has been known to eat a pound of peas on her way home from the market. Does Massachusetts need a shelling and driving law? I say it does.
Think of vegetable salads the same as you would seasonal soups. Imagine how the individual tastes blend together and become one transformed distinct mouthful. An argument can be made to say that none of these vegetables needs any cooking if they are super fresh and young, but I like to blanch the asparagus, peas, and favas very briefly. Cook them until they turn vivid green — about 2 minutes — then plunge into ice water to stop the cooking. They will be tender but still nice and crisp.
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Recipe for spring peas, fava beans, asparagus, and radishes with hard-cooked eggs and Parmesan
Because the vegetables are quite lean, adding a little richness rounds everything out and brings balance. This is where eggs and cheese come in. Hard-cooked eggs are easy and there are many methods that work. I start the eggs in cold water, bring them to a boil, turn off the heat, and cover them. They sit for 12 minutes. They should peel easily when still warm and the yolks will be just set. Buy a 3- or 4-inch chunk of Parmesan and it will make nice long shavings; the cheese gives each mouthful a shot of salty fattiness so important for the balance of the salad.
And speaking of balance, the dressing is quite acidic, but don’t be alarmed. Lemon juice and zest add a robust brightness. Add more oil to suit your taste if you think it’s too sour. Tender Bibb lettuce is velvety, delicate, and sweet.
Asparagus, English peas, radishes, and fava beans are spring crops all New Englanders fight for right now. Yes, I can get them year-round like most vegetables, but waiting for produce grown at our kitchen doorstep renews my love of vegetable salads.
I love the cold but I am truly grateful to have winter finally gone. In April, fields begin to dry out, farm tractors trade snowplows for earth plows and rumble down long rows as seeds go into soil. By mid-May, the earth has warmed and in early June the first vegetables emerge. It’s time to cook. Don’t wait. In a quick month it’s summer and everything changes again.
More from “Cooking with Gordon Hamersley”:
– My delightful mother-in-law’s perfect spring dessert
– Giving the spiky artichoke its due
– Endives: from a foreign concept to a favored status
Gordon Hamersley can be reached at [email protected]