Cold days and nights are now a thing of the past. The sun shines longer and the daytime temperatures rise. The pleasant scent of freshly mowed lawn and flowering plants indicates that spring is approaching and that nature is waking up after a long winter sleep.
Spring welcomes us with open hands, and seasonal treasures make their way to the region’s markets, including some of the top three favorites: tender asparagus, sweet peas picked fresh from their pods and, oh yes, that beloved sweet Vidalia onions.
The spring vegetables are perhaps the most fetish of all products. After months of eating root vegetables and cabbage and other hard, savory things, we’re all ready for a change — something more delicate, something that won’t increase your starch intake with every bite.
Crabtree Farms community farmer Lauren Russek says the anticipation for spring vegetables has increased since the fields were prepared in late winter and the first round of plants went into the ground – peas and onions among them.
Now they begin to appear.
“It’s an exciting time on the farm,” says Russek.
What cook didn’t crave the fresh flavors of the first spring asparagus or grin with sheer delight when the palate met the sweet taste of spring peas?
While Crabtree Farms doesn’t grow asparagus, you’ll see Michael Raines nibbling on his fresh asparagus every morning while feeding his chickens at his Frontier Family Farm in Altamont, Tennessee.
“It’s my favorite snack every morning,” he says.
Raines started planting asparagus 15 years ago, and although it is now prolific, establishing his crop has not been easy.
“It requires a year-long planting process,” he says. “But besides being composted every year, it continues to produce for 15 years or more.”
When he’s not nibbling on the farm, he often takes his asparagus, as well as other spring produce — lettuce, spinach, and sugar snap peas — to sell at Mooney’s Emporium on Main Street in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Thanks to the world’s global garden, it is possible to find sweet onions all year round, but it’s only this time of year when Vidalia onions fill the produce markets, waiting for seasonings all over the South.
This year’s crop is looking good, said Chris Tyson, Vidalia onion agent for the University of Georgia Extension Service.
“The growers are enthusiastic about it,” he says. “They’ve put a lot of work into it this year.”
This trio of springtime favorites — Vidalias, peas, and asparagus — make delicious dishes on their own.
Vidalia Onion Soup With Old Cheddar And Parsley Pesto
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds Vidalia onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
8 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted
1 pound aged cheddar cheese, grated
2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter with the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until caramelized, about 40 minutes.
Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute. Add the brandy and sherry and cook until almost completely evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in stock and thyme, bring to a boil and cook until soup has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Preheat the grill of your oven. Place the croquettes on a baking tray. Place a slice of bread on the bottom of each dish. Fill to three quarters full with soup. Place another slice of bread over the soup and divide the cheese over it. Roast for 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle each with a dollop of parsley pesto.
To make pesto:
Place the parsley and garlic in a food processor or blender and grind until coarsely chopped. With the engine running, slowly add the oil. Add the cheese and season with salt and pepper.
Risotto with fresh spring peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots chopped
4 cloves of garlic minced
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups fresh peas, blanched quickly
Pea vines (if desired for garnish)
Kosher salt and white pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the Arborio rice to the pan, making sure to stir it in the olive oil to coat each grain, and roast for about 90 seconds.
Add the white wine and stir the rice until all the wine is incorporated then start adding the chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time, making sure not to add more until the previous addition has been incorporated.
When the rice is just soft, add the Parmesan cheese and mascarpone and mix. Add the previously blanched peas and gently mix into the risotto. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with pea vines, if available, and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve.
Swapping the pasta for thin asparagus spears gives this carbonara the same irresistible pancetta-cheese-egg flavor, but with bright green asparagus in the center.
4 ounces pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 pound thin, fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain off the excess, leaving just enough to cover the pan. Add the asparagus and 2 tablespoons water and cook over medium-high heat until asparagus is crisp, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the egg yolks and butter to the pan. Cook, stirring, until the butter has melted. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.