This is my favorite time of the year for eating! I won’t say one season, because it is more about the heart of spring, and beginning of summer – so more of a timeframe. That excitement literally stems from all the brilliant produce, which is popping up all over – whether it is grown or foraged. What makes it even more exciting is taking that produce and making dishes which are simple yet express the brilliance mother nature has to offer. This time of the year gets even more wonderful when we pair this food with wines which compliment nature’s bounty.
Right now, our farmer’s markets are filled with a never-ending list of amazingness. On one side of the coin, we have fiddleheads, ramps, morels, nettles, and many other foraged items which can be sought after by so many. On the other side we have the readily available bounty’s, such as asparagus (all colors and sizes), green garlic, spring peas, snap peas, Vidalia onions, garden spinach (not all consistent-shape packaged stuff), artichokes (big, small, purple Sicilian), and so many others – many of which act as a perfect canvas for the rarer spring finds.
What all these seasonal blessings have in common is their purity of flavor. They all stand alone and when prepared don’t need much to be done at all. When I pair wines with any of these, I look for wines with equal purity. Purity can be in any color or style of wine, and usually means the wine expresses fresh fruit, vibrant acidity, a somewhat “zingy” texture, and a long cleansing finish – sometimes with a bit of earth or minerality. I will go a step further and say that I believe the most important part of the wine’s purity for all these vegetables/mushrooms is the texture and acidity. There is nothing like the pop of a fresh spring pea, the crunch of a nettle, the toothsome, yet spongy texture of a mushroom, or the mouth-watering sweetness of a Vidalia. In most cases these are used in a dish, but they will stand out, so the common denominator is to make that vegetable stand out more – texture and acid will do just that!
Grapes which stand out to me as being just as exciting for the same reasons as the spring bounty are Gruner Veltliner, Unoaked Chardonnay, Assyrtiko, Verdicchio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and dry Riesling for white grapes. Red grapes like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Gamay, are also perfect when made in a lighter style. Rosés all tend to be great, as they have just a fresh fruit zing, and carry the texture of a light red – especially Provence-styled. These all can make the veggie “pop” and still hold their own and shine through any dish.
Now is not the time for long-winded, by-the-book recipes, but I will give examples of what can be done with many of these beautiful pieces of nature, as well as wines which will pair perfectly to make for a great dish, or meal…
Fresh Peas: Yes, they may take a little bit of work getting them out of their pods, but the reward is worth the time. Some things which I like to do with these are fold them into lentils in the last 5-10 minutes while they’re cooking. Black lentils, or Lentils du Puy take on the flavor of whichever stock you cook them in, and the peas add a nice contrast to the softness of the lentils with a fresh “al dente” pop of sweetness. This isn’t a heavy dish, but the lentils give richness. For something like this I love to pair Gruner Veltliner from Austria. This grape takes on both a natural richness, but also has some of the “green” character as the peas – with a nice zing of freshness on the end. For the lentil dish you can have a Gruner from a region like the Wachau – they are the boldest.
Black lentils add an almost chocolatey texture, which adds some weight to the dish, so in this case you can also have red wine. A tart cherry-styled wine from Gamay, Pinot Noir, or Nebbiolo would work equally well. Cru Beaujolais, like Morgan, Bourgogne Rouge from Burgundy, and Langhe Nebbiolo would be an excellent pairing, and you don’t have to have meat at all.
You can also use the peas in pasta. While you are boiling linguine, spaghetti, or angel hair, sautée some spring garlic in olive oil until it is translucent, add the peas and let cook until al dente, and then toss in the strained pasta, and season with salt and pepper – simple, yet brilliant. This would also pair perfectly with Gruner Veltiner. This dish needs a bit of a lighter style, and a region like Kamptal, or Kremstal would be a great choice to add some zest.
Asparagus: This is one of my most favorite vegetables in the world in all its permutations – green, white, purple…its variants are almost endless in certain parts of the world. This is the season for local, fresh asparagus. Yes, you can get this year-round, but now is the time for its true beauty, when it isn’t that “aggressive asparagus”. Nothing bothers me more than when you get overcooked, floppy asparagus in a dish and its flavors, and texture are masked by a ton of things on top of it. Asparagus should be the star of the dish – or a costar with another. Yes, you can grill asparagus, but that’s like adding cowbell to a classical song. My favorite way of preparing spring asparagus is to poach it. You can choose almost any poaching liquid: veg stock, chicken stock, meat stock, fish stock, etc… My favorite is dashi. You get the salt flavor, umami, and a little bit of smokiness to add to the gorgeous stalks, while keeping the lovely greenness in flavor. For skinny stalks I poach for 2-4 minutes, and for thicker, larger stocks I go 4-6 minutes. Keep the asparagus firm, but you can bite right through easily. After it’s cooked you can season it, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil, or maybe a few drops of soy. Simple is key! I have even placed with the lentils dish I mentioned previously as a contrasting flavor.
Asparagus to me screams for great Sauvignon Blanc! Specifically, Loire Valley, or lean styles of Sauvignon Blanc. These compliment the beautiful flavors of the asparagus, because they naturally have a little greenness to them, as well as a wonderful minerally texture – think of the zing of a grapefruit which sort of numbs the tongue. These combined flavors make spring come to life in every bite. I like to have wines from regions such as, Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre, and Mentou-Salon. There has been a big trend in these wines lately, so they should be very easy to find, and well worth it. Another thing you can add to the asparagus if you want some protein is smoked salmon, or gravlax at brunch. The flavors of the fish go great with the asparagus, and the Sauvignon Blanc will make them both sing.
Fiddlehead Ferns: These are fun to have, and add a wonderfully crunchy texture, with a pretty, vibrant “green” flavor. These take a little effort but are well worth it. Before you cook them for the dish, they need to be boiled for about 15 minutes to remove a compound which can upset the stomach. Once you boil them, cool them quickly in some ice-water, this is so they don’t keep cooking and get soft – keeping a light crunch is important. My favorite way to prepare fiddlehead ferns is the simplest, cooked in a similar way I prepared the fresh peas. I heat some fresh spring garlic, or green garlic, in olive oil. After it starts to become translucent, I add the fiddleheads and sautée on high until they blister a little or get some caramelized color – and then fold in fresh pasta, lightly seasoned. You can add juxtaposing textures and add some fresh peas. Another variation is to sautée ramp leaves, instead of garlic. These can add some natural spice to the dish. I also like to add the cooked fiddleheads to the lentil dish from earlier; the combinations are endless.
Fiddleheads need an extra “zip” from the wine which they are paired with. By “zip” I mean intensity without body necessarily. One of my favorite grapes is Assyrtiko, from Santorini, Greece. They have a lot of flavor, gorgeous aromatics with a hint of sea spray, and a fresh minerality which lingers on the palate endlessly. It’s this minerality which cuts through the big flavor of the fiddleheads, without masking them at all. It is a grape which was born to go with simplicity in food – by that I mean olive oil, garlic, and simple seasonings. These wines remind me of Rothko – simple shapes and colors but tell a much bigger story.
There are so many things which can be done with all these vegetables, and I could fill up a book with these ideas; many people have already done that, so here are so rules of thumb to use for making spring veggies happy on the table, without just making a salad:
- Don’t cook all the vegetables together! This “smooshes” all their flavors together. Cook them separately then assemble together to keep each of their individual characters.
- Be Simple! Veggies don’t need too much to let them shine. Piles of fresh parmigiano shaved on top of them – if you want to go ahead, but the more you add the more it becomes a cheese dish.
- The addition of mushrooms, dark lentils, or even a bit of chopped bacon, can help these become red wine dishes. You don’t need meat, just richer texture. Adding a portobello purée does wonders to a veggie dish.
- When in doubt keep it al dente! Keep a little toothsomeness to veggies – they will have better flavor, and they will add a great texture to the dish.
- Salt is your friend! Pepper, including adding chile, etc…isn’t a must, but salt in any form will bring out the flavor, and also make the tartness seem milder with fresh veggies.
These are a few simple tricks and ideas. Of course, there isn’t one right answer – and most of the grapes I mentioned above are interchangeable, as they fall into the same category. This is all about what you like most. What could be worse than playing with different dishes and different wines in the most wonderful time of the year.