The Blessings of Spring Greens
Preparing the asparagus and greens now cropping up at greenmarkets can be remarkably quick and easy.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Looking through one of my cookbooks (Please to the Table: A Russian Cookbook), I was surprised to find this written by the authors, Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman: “In Russia, the appearance of the first vegetable or fruit of the season is always a major event….When eating the first fruit or vegetable of the season, or tasting one for the first time, it is customary in Russia to make a wish. It makes this joyous moment even more significant.”
The similarity to the Hebrew Shehecheyonu is striking. That blessing—which Anita Diamant has called the “wow” prayer”—expresses one’s delight in experiencing something for the first time this season or the first time ever. It’s the blessing said at Rosh Hashanah when tasting a fruit anew that autumn. And savoring the fruit like that, wrapped in a blessing, does indeed make it taste richer, more significant.
How did the Russian tradition originate? Most likely it is simply one common to many peoples, a shared feeling of celebration arising out of the collective unconscious, as Jung might explain. After all, in a similar vein, the French drink a toast to first-of-the-season strawberries, cherries, and asparagus.
On the other hand, thinking about my ancestors in Belarus, I like to speculate that just maybe this is a custom Russians borrowed from their Jewish neighbors—just as the Jews adopted the Russian blintz and made it their own.
My first-of-the-season tastes usually begin at New York’s Union Square Greenmarket. The market is open four days a week, and at this time of year, each day now brings something new. Ramps and asparagus arrived a few weeks ago; even early strawberries first showed up in late April. And a profusion of different, assorted greens are always turning up at the farmers’ stands—stinging nettles, pea shoots, cresses, lamb’s quarters, nasturtium leaves, New Zealand spinach.
So I buy way too much, even when I am barely cooking that week because I’m so pressed for time. Letting this glorious produce go to waste is not an option, so I’ve come up with a few fast strategies to use up my spring purchases on days when I can only spend very little time in the kitchen. And they’re much better alternatives when I can’t bear yet another takeout meal of mediocre quality and nutrition.
Really simple and quickest: Put a large pot of broth on the stove (if you’re lucky enough to have some of your own homemade in the freezer, use that, or else your favorite store-bought brand). Rinse the greens (spinach, broccoli rabe, nettles, etc.) and coarsely chop them. When the broth boils, toss in the greens, cover, and simmer until as tender as you like them. You can add seasonings if you like (smoked paprika, chopped garlic, lemon zest, jarred artichoke puree) and cooked beans (canned or leftover chickpeas, cannellinis, for example), leftover chicken, rice or other grains, or some tofu. Serve each bowl drizzled with an excellent quality extra virgin olive oil or a fine nut oil (toasted sesame oil and a bit of chili oil is especially good with the tofu). Add some good bread, and you have a nice, fresh-tasting light supper.
Or start with a pot of cooked lentils or chickpeas. Add liquid: broth, crushed tomatoes and their juice, or just water. Stir in the greens, season as you like, cover, and cook until tender. Serve with extra virgin olive oil, and/or grated Parmesan or other cheese, or dollops of seasoned yogurt (more on the yogurt later).
Drying wild or baby greens for salad can take forever. Instead, get the same high-nutritional punch from a quick—and scrumptious—non-alcoholic cocktail. Put a generous handful of tart greens (such as arugula, sorrel, or cress) into the blender, along with pineapple juice. Whirl until all of the leaves have pureed, forming a gorgeous pale green frothy liquid. Serve straightaway in tall glasses.
This is my go-to vegetable now, because not only is it at its peak, but it is also perhaps the fastest to clean and cook. I snap off the ends, rinse the spears well, and then spread them out on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little good oil, shake to distribute everything, and roast in a hot oven until tender. To bump up the flavor, serve with grated cheese or seasoned yogurt.
I keep two kinds of plain yogurt in my refrigerator: nonfat, for my default breakfast (along with fresh fruit) most mornings; and a full-fat, preferably Greek- or Middle Eastern-style.
You don’t need much of the full-fat kind to make a quick sauce that’s flavorful and fresh-tasting, similar to Greek tzatziki or Indian raita. The sauce is a great topping for rice and other grain dishes, beans, cooked and raw vegetables. You can use it as a dip and it enhances many simple fish dishes too: its light acidity pairs well with rich fish, like salmon. The other night I baked bluefish fillet (rich in healthy omega 3-fatty acids and bought very fresh at the greenmarket), with just salt, pepper, olive oil, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs I had on hand. But with the yogurt sauce spooned over the baked fish, served along with a platter of asparagus, the meal was the taste of spring.
Here’s what you do. Start with full-fat yogurt (nonfat just doesn’t work for this—unless you mix it with some rich sour cream). If it’s not Greek-style, drain it in a strainer lined with a paper towel or coffee filter until it’s thick and creamy. This also rounds out the flavor and makes it less sour. Stir in a little extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. For the bluefish, I seasoned the yogurt with minced fresh garlic, lemon juice and grated zest, and crushed dried mint. Let the yogurt sit a bit, so the flavors can mingle. I sprinkled the top of the sauce with sumac. Other flavorings to try, depending on what you’re serving the sauce with: orange or lime juice and zest; dried oregano, thyme, and za’atar; fresh herbs like dill, cilantro, mint, chives, and scallions; spices, such as cumin, good paprika, ground ancho or chipotle pepper, and saffron; chopped cucumber. And I’m sure you’ll think of many more.
Running to the grocery to pick up last-minute items defeats our purpose here. To throw these dishes together hastily, remember to stock your pantry with some essentials: besides yogurt, it’s a good idea to keep on hand good broth, pineapple juice (if you want to try the drink), fine olive oil, and canned beans. Or prepare extra beans and grains ahead, when cooking another meal, so you’ll have leftovers.
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