Spring's best veggies are in season. Here's how to pick and prepare them.
Nothing is better than spring vegetables. The flavor is so intense and vibrant, there's little need for fattening sauces or dressings. In fact, tasting this produce straight from the farmers' market or grocery store has been known to induce the most delicious form of spring fever.
Asparagus is best enjoyed when "crisp-tender" and bright green, so it retains its distinctive taste and nutrients. At the store, look for deep green stalks with tight skin and compact tips (thin versus thick stalks is a matter of personal preference). Fresh asparagus can be refrigerated for up to five days if you wrap the bottoms in a damp paper towel and then place in a paper bag.
To cook asparagus, first break or cut off the tough white ends, then roast the stalks to bring out the sweetness: Toss with olive oil and salt and pepper, and cook in a 450ºF oven for about 5 minutes, until fork tender. Squeeze lemon juice over the roasted stalks, or wrap them in thin slices of ham or prosciutto.
A member of the onion family, the leek is the onion's milder cousin. Look for stalks no thicker than about 1½ inches, free from blemishes and with a bright white neck and vibrant green leaves. Unwashed and untrimmed, they will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Before cooking, split leeks in half lengthwise and rinse to remove all the sand and grit between the layers (or cut into 1-inch pieces crosswise and soak in a big bowl of cold water). Leeks are most often found cooked (we like to sauté them with fennel and olive oil, and then sprinkle with fresh lemon juice and thyme), but they may also be sliced thinly and eaten raw in salads.
Freshly shelled peas have a sweet earthiness that the frozen kind just can't match. They're best eaten the day they're bought before their fresh-picked sweetness fades. Look for pods with a brilliant green color and tight skin (no shriveling). Open one up in the store to make sure the peas inside are medium size—large peas aren't as tender. To serve, quickly steam and toss with olive oil and chopped herbs, such as chives, basil, dill or mint. Enjoy as a side dish or atop pasta.
Also delicious at this time of year are pea shoots, the leaves and tendrils of pea plants. They have a bright fresh-pea flavor and can be eaten raw in salads or thrown into stir-fries or soups at the last minute (they cook quickly).
Spinach and Swiss Chard
Spinach and Swiss chard are both healthful leafy greens, and they're both delicious when prepared correctly. Look for crisp, vibrant leaves—no limpness, spots or yellowing—and wash thoroughly to remove sandy soil. Spinach can be eaten raw or cooked, and has a salty, almost musky flavor. Use it in lieu of lettuce on sandwiches or in a healthy version of creamed spinach made with low-fat yogurt or ricotta cheese and a dash of garlic powder and nutmeg. Chard, a member of the beet family, has white or red edible stems and dark-green leaves, which have a slight bitterness (akin to beet greens) and saltiness (like spinach). Cut it up (stems included) and toss it into your favorite soup.
Watercress, a member of the mustard family that has a distinct peppery flavor, may be familiar as a garnish, but it's delicious enough to take center stage. These tender greens will keep in the refrigerator for four to five days if wrapped in damp paper towels and placed in a plastic bag. You can toss watercress into a salad or soup (after removing the thickest stems), or do as the English do and make watercress tea sandwiches: Purée low-fat cream cheese, fresh watercress and fresh parsley; season with salt and pepper; and spread on your favorite bread.