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Cooking with Lesser-Known Spring Vegetables

A flood of asparagus, radishes and artichokes are a sure sign of spring, but you don’t have to restrict yourself to a daily diet of them. Look a little deeper and you can enjoy some spring finds that will liven up your plate and awaken your palate to a host of fresh flavors. Depending on what region of the country you live in, you may even find that these vegetables are local — another great reason to seek them out.

Dandelion Greens

Dandelion Greens

Tender early leaves of this common weed are earthy and lightly bitter with a touch of tannic. You can collect them yourself before the plants flower if you’re sure you have a source that’s not been treated with chemicals or pesticides, or look for cultivated dandelion varieties, which have the benefit of being larger and more tender than wild greens.

You can use dandelion as you would arugula in salads, or sauté it, braise it or use it in soups like you would kale or spinach. Like all greens, be sure to rinse dandelion very well and trim off any touch stem or root ends. Try them out in Dandelion Greens with Warm Balsamic Vinaigrette, a terrific starter recipe featuring a delicious combination of garlic and hazelnuts. Grilled Peaches with Dandelion Greens and Ginger Dressing is also a fabulous savory salad, and if peaches aren’t in season you can use pears. 

Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddlehead Ferns

These intriguing greens have a very short season, usually just a few weeks, but if you’re lucky enough to find them you should take advantage of them. Their looks are stellar: The new fronds of the ostrich fern, they form coiled spirals that resemble the head of a fiddle. But these aren’t delicate beauties: They’re firm and crunchy, with a deep woodsy taste that can stand up to strong flavors like garlic and even chilies.

Fiddleheads must be cooked to be edible, and careful rinsing and removing any brown fuzzy or papery husk is best for texture. The bottom stem should also be trimmed if it is tough or browned. The best starting point for preparing them is to steam them or boil them in salted water until tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Then you can eat them as is, perhaps drizzled with some olive oil or melted butter, a squeeze of lemon and a generous seasoning of sea salt and pepper. Or cool them quickly in cold water and serve cold in salads or reheated in stir-fries or sautés. You can even add them to omelets, quiche or frittatas as you would asparagus — a fabulous brunch treat!

Ramps

Ramps

These delicate veggies look a little diminutive leeks or squat scallions, but their earthy, onion-like flavor and tender texture make them very distinct in the kitchen. To clean ramps you’ll want to submerge them in a basin of water and swish them around gently to remove any grit, then lift them out and pat them dry.

The very easiest way to use ramps is to slice them like scallions and serve them in salads or as a garnish for other recipes. My preference, however, is to enjoy the meltingly tender texture they get when cooked. My favorite technique: Toss them with a light vinaigrette, then grill them by placing the white bulbs towards the hotter area of the fire and let the green leaves recline on a cooler are of grill rack. Turn them once after an few minutes, and remove them from the grill just when the bulbs show grill marks. Steaming is also excellent, and I love ramps in soup — just don’t overcook them or you’ll lose their unique character.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Deep-red to blushing pink with a stripling of green, these colorful stalks are hard to resist when they begin turning up in the market. Rhubarbs leaves are mildly toxic so you’re unlikely to see them, but the crisp, juicy stalks are something to wait for. Beware, however: This is one tart character, and with few exceptions you’ll need to temper its pucker power with a generous dose of sweetener.

Rhubarb’s arrival before summer fruits means that this vegetable has traditionally done duty in spring pies and desserts. Rhubarb Cream Pie is a terrific recipe flavored with orange and nutmeg. You can also make delicious Rhubarb Chutney to serve as a condiment or sauce with either desserts or savory recipes like roast ham and or cheese dishes. And speaking of ham, Ham and Rhubarb Jam Toasties are easy and fabulous as a light meal or appetizer.

Morel Mushrooms

Spring Mushrooms

Hunting for mushrooms as the weather warms is tradition in many parts of the country. Morels are the classic spring bounty, but any number of other wild species, most of which are now cultivated as well, are great additions to your dishes.

Mushroom Potato Hash is terrific for any mix of mushrooms and can as easily go with eggs as with a spring favorite like leg of lamb. This recipe for Asparagus with Wild Mushrooms is great with morels but is also an ideal vehicle for more common varieties. And for a vegetarian main course, you can’t go wrong with Wild Mushroom Tart, a savory mixture of mushrooms enriched with parmesan and crème fraîche.

You may not have access to have all of these in your area, so share your favorite local spring produce picks in the comments section.