Seasonal Harvest - June 18, 2010

WHITE-TIPPED RADISHES — from that lovely and sulfurous Cruciferous family. Though available year around, radishes are a cooler weather vegetable and thus sweeter in spring and autumn, their leaves ever so more tender. In the simmering days of summer they become woody and lose all their joy. And those unblemished green tops... 'tis a shame to throw them away; they make for a great addition to salads, can be transformed into a wonderful pesto, or lightly wilted with a mixture of other baby greens. Besides they're an excellent source of Vitamin C and calcium (perhaps 6 times more content than the actual radish). And to think that we mainly grew up watching our mothers throw them away. Of course, if you're going to use the leaves, I'd suggest buying them grown organically, biodynamically, sustainably.... Better yet, grow them yourself — even on your windowsill.

WATERCRESS is one of the earliest known leafy vegetables eaten by humans. A quick growing cool-weather vegetable, it flourishes in spring and autumn. And it is quite an amazing source of calcium, iron, folic acid...

RED SCALLIONS, which are the early shoots of red onions, have begun to crop up at the marketplaces here in Paris. They arrive early April and sometime in June they'll disappear. But in the meantime, you can enjoy them in salads, pasta dishes, and...

Young bunches of BLETTE leaves are out and about this spring. The blette plant is kin to the Chenopodiaceae (or Goosefoot) family along with beets, spinach, amaranth and quinoa, It was cultivated in the European Mediterranean as far back as Babylon and ancient Rome. It became popualr in France in the Middle Ages with many a recipe honoring it. Depending on the variety, its taste and texture recall that of Swiss chard or collards. The blette pictured here is an early French variety whose leaves are small and somewhat thick and more collards in most ways. The variety praised by Italians, whose leaves can achieve elephantine proportions, has a surprisingly silky texture and thin, supple leaves, and brings more to mind Swiss chard. If growing it in you garden, it can be harvested from July to October. The larger leafy blette has white ribs which can comprise up to a third even a half of its size, but they are rarely discarded. In fact they're quite prized and spun into succulent gratins and savory tarts in France and Italy alike. One of my favorite ways to use the colossal leaves is in the savory tart, erbazzone, that hails from Emilia-Romagna.

The prized GARIGUETTE is a treat to behold in your mouth. This early variety of strawberry is picked from mid-April to mid-June and its presence at the marketplace exhales spring in all her glory.

This young bulb of FENNEL hails from Sicily where the more clement temperatures allow for winter growth. In its native region (southern Europe and the Mediterranean) it is normally planted in late spring or early summer for harvesting in autumn and then again in spring. Of course fennel is available in summer and winter, but oh how stringy and cantankerous it is, as fennel is not one persuaded by summer's warmth or winter's chill.

RHUBARB was known for its curative properties some 4500 years ago in places such as China and southern Russia, but it wasn't until the 18th century that people took to celebrating it in dishes, both savory and sweet. The beautiful red stalks are available from the end of April through June and they make wonderful compote, pies, chutney...

WILD FENNEL grows prolifically throughout spring. It has often been considered a nasty weed, spreading out enthusiastically on hill and dale. You can easily forage for it on a sunny country lane or rolling hill. Kindly cut off the younger, more tender stalks; as they age they become fibrous. The bright green feathery fronds are wonderful added raw to salads. Sicilians cook frond and stalk then sculpt them into the most earthy wild fennel cakes.

VIOLET ARTICHOKES are cultivated all around the Mediterranean region. Certain Italian varieties are delectable eaten raw, very thinly sliced and served with freshly squeezed lemon juice and a good, spicy extra-virgin olive oil. They are harvested from March to May (often available again in fall), and of course are heavenly in risotto or frittata.

SORREL is a perennial plant whose young leaves can already be picked in early spring and then on through fall. A most hardy plant that I left on my windowsill through Paris's last expressive winters, waking up in the morning to find it cloaked with snow and gleaming. Mix the baby leaves with all the other fine young shoots to ad a nice tart layer to your salad. And if the Northern winds persist even in May (!) ... gather up younger and older leaves and swirl them into a velvety soup.

Is there any green as exquisitely luscious as the BEET GREEN? Lightly wilted then swiftly sautéed with a pinch of chopped garlic (sprout removed), seasoned with unrefined sea salt and freshly ground pepper and, just before heaping onto a plate, christened with a pearl or two of fresh lemon juice. Heaven is just around the corner! Don't let anyone cut off those tops ever again! Not to mention they're chocked full of vitamins and minerals. From mid-spring to at least mid-summer they spread their lofty leaves out on vendors' stands at markets here in Paris, waiting to be gathered up into your arms.

Fresh ROSE GARLIC: fat, round, and full of delicate flavor. You can find it at the marché from the end of May through September. All young fresh allums (onion, shallot, garlic) are kindly digestible, so don't deprive yourself of their savor. Chop fresh garlic (first remove the exterior leaves, until you get to its firm heart) and sprinkle it on a salad, or toss the cloves with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and roast in a hot oven, on the top rack, for 10 minutes or so. Great with roasted beets.

NEW ONIONS [oignons nouveax] as they're called in France are available from April to July. I love to douse them with extra-virgin olive oil, wrap the green tops in parchment paper then roast them in a hot oven, on the top rack, for 5 - 10 minutes. They make a beautifully colorful garnish to any vegetable dish and are generously sweet in the mouth.

TOMATOES, TOMAhTOES. They've just begin to appear at one of my favorite marketplace vendors at the Aligre marché in Paris... all the way from Sicily — and still green. (The red ones pictured above were as green when I bought them as the shier one hiding behind them until they ripend into their now robust crimson robe.) I have to tell you that when I bite into my first tomato of the season, a clamorous joy invades me. I eat mounds and mounds of them until there are no more to pluck from the vines, knowing I'll have to go without their enthusiastic presence and vigor through the long winter months. But from May to October it's tomato time!

WILD ASPARAGUS, delicate, wispy things you can gather in the woods and hills from mid-March - mid-February (depending how far south you are) through mid-April. But I would be stretching the truth if I let you think that I'd been out with my basket picking them not far from a quaint village setting... Alas, they are also now grown commercially and I picked these up at the marketplace the other day. It was an adventure of sorts nonetheless, as I steered my bike through the teeming streets of Paris and back home again with them in tow. Seems the most mouth-watering way to prepare them is lightly cooked in a splash of water then added to a frothy omelette.
I'm a bit late in getting onto my Seasonal Harvest list this spring variety of Brassica oleracea: CHOU POINTU (pointed cabbage), which naturally "points" its conical head up at you from vegetable stands throughout France during the months of April, May and June. Smooth, exuberantly large outer leaves spiral down into a tight-knit cone of wonderfully refined texture and flavor. The German heirloom cabbage Spitzkohl is quite similar (if not the same, but for the fact that it's left to grow to surprisingly large proportions) and is commonly used in the making of sauerkraut. Try the raw inner leaves cut into a fine chiffonade, tossed with other seasonal vegetables and herbs, and seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

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