By Kristi Willis
Photography by Carole Topalian
Many home chefs were taught to cook by first finding a recipe and then hunting down the ingredients at the store, without much thought as to whether the produce was at its peak. The ease of shipping foods across the world to the local grocery aisle has made popular produce available year-round, regardless of its freshness, and has resulted in ubiquitous grainy tomatoes and flavorless peaches.
Alternatively, cooking seasonally captures the moment in time when produce is at its freshest—still bursting with the flavor of the field or the vine. It also builds anticipation for the first glimpse of early spring asparagus, peas or potatoes at the farmers market and the rapture of the first bite of a perfectly ripe, juicy strawberry.
Chef Tabatha Stephens of Dai Due learned to cook seasonally from her family. “I grew up going to farm stands with my mom, grandmother and aunt,” she recollects, “so I grew up in this culture of looking forward to tomatoes all year, and when they finally arrived I was totally thrilled. When I got a little older and could make choices about my food, it felt natural to explore that route even further and just really enjoy everything when it comes fresh.”
As for her favorite spring vegetables, Stephens says, “I definitely look forward to snap peas, English peas and snow peas—that variety pack that they have at Boggy Creek Farm. I love potatoes and when you get those first little spring lettuces that are so tender and lovely.”
Those who weren’t raised in a seasonal kitchen can find the shift to cooking by the calendar challenging. The trick is to reverse the order of planning dishes. Instead of starting with a recipe, begin by knowing what is available. The Resources area of the Edible Austin website has a “What’s In Season” section with links to recipes by ingredient, and many farmers markets send out e-mail updates with what is expected at the market that week. When searching for an item in limited supply, contact the farmer directly or get to the market early to snag the prized produce.
During your recipe search, be open to trying new things and willing to set aside old favorites to make room for new gems. When presented with a less familiar ingredient, ask a farmer at the market for suggestions on preparing it. Most farmers can offer up flavorful dishes that make the produce the star of the plate. Smartphone apps like Epicurious and How to Cook Everything also make it easy to find recipes while perusing the farmers market booths.
Most importantly, savor the moment in the season. “I eat as much as I can while that produce is available, and even go a little overboard, making myself tired of things,” muses Stephens. Of course the promise of tomatoes, corn and melons just around the corner is the perfect panacea for any overindulgence in spring treasures.
FRIED SQUASH BLOSSOMS STUFFED WITH CRAWFISH
Courtesy Chef Matthew Buchanan, The Leaning Pear
Serves 4 to 6
12 squash blossoms
For the filling:
1 T. butter
¼ c. minced shallot
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeño, seeded, chopped
1 lb. domestic crawfish tail meat
¹/3 c. sliced green onion
1 c. Full Quiver queso fresco or
other local fresh cheese
2 T. chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper, to taste
Peanut or vegetable oil
For the tempura batter:
1 c. flour
¼ c. corn starch
1½ c. cold soda water
Pinch of salt
To make the filling, heat the butter in a sauté pan. Add the shallot, garlic and jalapeño and cook until soft and aromatic. Place into a medium mixing bowl with the remaining ingredients and stir gently to combine. Gently fill the squash blossoms and twist at the end so that they stay together.
To make the tempura batter, whisk the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Dip the squash blossoms into the tempura batter and deep fry in peanut or vegetable oil heated to 350° for 3 to 5 minutes, until golden brown.
SPRING PEAS AND BABY LETTUCES
Courtesy Chef Tabatha Stephens, Dai Due
When peas are in season, I eat them almost every day. This simple springtime dish is lovely with roasted chicken. Or add a few leaves of sliced mint to serve with lamb. This delicate side dish is also superb followed with local strawberries and cream.
1 T. butter
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
3 spring bulb onions, whites and greens, sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste
3-4 pt. peas (shelled English peas or a mix of snap, snow and
1 c. homemade chicken stock
2 heads tender spring lettuces (butter lettuce or a tender
red leaf works well)
Melt the butter with the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until soft. Add the peas and the chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, stir and cover. Cook for 5 minutes, or until tender-crisp. While the peas are cooking, chiffonade (slice into thin strips) the lettuces. Gently stir the lettuces into the peas, correct the seasoning to taste and enjoy.
Click, below, for more spring recipes:
BRAISED LAMB SHANKS, SPRING VEGETABLES WITH GREEN PESTO AND POLENTA, Courtesy of Chef Matt Taylor, BC Tavern
OLIVE OIL CAKE WITH STRAWBERRIES AND HORCHATA ICE CREAM, Courtesy of Chef Jessica Maher, Lenoir