March 15, 2018
Even though our coolers stay colorful year-round (thanks to our global network of growers), by the end of winter we still find ourselves craving a sign – any sign - of spring. Whether it’s the transition to cooler weather in the Southern Hemisphere or the arrival of warmer temperatures here in the North, March ushers in a new season for farmers around the world. With this new season comes the arrival of a whole slew of unique seasonal spring-time fruits and vegetables that, taken all together, give us hope that winter is almost at a close.
Beyond strawberries (not that we don’t love strawberries!), here are a few of our favorite spring specialties, some unconventional, some classics, that we’ll be savoring as the weather warms and summer appears on the horizon – all perfectly promotable for spring-time special menus to bring some color back into the kitchen and excitement to the front of house!
Pronounced “aah-tah-ool-fo,” the Atalufo mango (sometimes known as a honey mango, or under the trademarked name Champagne Mango™) is a super-sweet, yellow variety of mango. They’re generally smaller than the average mango, and have flesh with a buttery-smooth texture. These Mexican mangoes are, we might argue, some of the best eating mangos on planet Earth. In peak season during the spring, these mangos are worthy of a featured spot on dessert and cocktail menus. Even add to salads or salsas! And may we suggest freezing cubed Atalulfo mango to preserve this limited-time fruit for smoothies later on down the road?
*Insert Star Trek reference here* The kiwano, also known as the “horned melon,” is native to sub-Saharan Africa, but most of the world’s (limited) supply is now grown in New Zealand, which happens to have the perfect growing conditions for this other-worldly fruit. It’s so weird that it’s even been served on an alien planet as “Golana melon” in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Inside its gently spiky exterior, kiwano has a jelly-like consistency and a mild flavor with hints of passionfruit, banana, cucumber, and lime. In season during New Zealand’s colder months – but our spring and summer! – kiwano melon is one of spring’s most unique arrivals. Beyond just decoration, we’re excited see the creative ways chefs use this awesome fruit to enhance desserts and cocktails on spring menus!
With its rough, fuzzy brown, inedible exterior, mamey is certainly nothing special to look at. BUT – inside, mamey has vivid, bright orange flesh with an irresistible sweet taste almost like pumpkin pie with a hint of almond. Nothing like a little taste of fall in spring! Keep in mind, mamey (a tropical fruit native to Central America, and found growing all over Florida in the spring and summer months) can be stubborn to ripen. Store it in a warm location out of the sunlight, and wait (patiently) until the fruit becomes soft to the touch and the skin wrinkles. Once the large pit is removed, the flesh can be scooped out easily. It’s hard not to eat right out of the skin with a spoon, but if you can manage to hold out, the flesh is delicious in milkshakes, ice creams, smoothies, and other desserts! (The flesh is also a great candidate for freezing).
What spring specialty produce list would be complete without strawberry’s kooky, often overlooked other-half, rhubarb? While rhubarb, botanically speaking, is a stem, it’s been classified as fruit since 1947, as it’s really only ever used in tandem with other sweets. More fun facts about rhubarb (because, well, we think rhubarb could use a little excitement in its life): did you know it’s in the same family as buckwheat and native to Siberia? Cool, right? Remember, rhubarb is extremely tart in taste, and not often used raw. It takes well to a gentle, slow braise until tender, and really shines when paired with a sweetener, like sugar, honey, or fruit. The plant is highly seasonal and only available in the spring, so get your pie kicks in while you can!
Tarocco Blood Oranges
While blood oranges are often associated with winter, this unique breed of blood orange grown exclusively on the slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna are a spring-time favorite of ours (and most of Europe). Not to be equated to the moro variety of blood orange most often grown in California, the Tarocco blood orange is an eating orange bred for flavor FIRST, color second. In fact, the Tarocco isn’t always red inside – sometimes it’s orange, pink, or a combination of the three. They’re easy to peel, seedless, exceptionally juicy, and have a bright, raspberry-like flavor that makes most other blood orange varieties seem like show pieces with no substance. Can you tell why we fawn over these fruits all spring long?
Sure, frozen peas are available year-round, but there’s nothing that says spring quite like a fresh English pea. Unlike snow and snap peas, tender-crisp English peas are hidden away in an inedible pod and must be shelled. Definitely worth the effort. Fresh peas are tender, but with a light snappiness and a sweet, starchy flavor with notes of grass and, of course, green pea (so meta!). Frozen peas can't hold a candle to the texture or flavor of freshly shucked. They can be eaten raw in salads, but are most commonly lightly blanched before being tossed with pasta, pureed into sophisticated bright green sauces to serve with lamb, or added to a seasonal salad with other spring favorites like fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms. Fresh peas are available sporadically throughout the year (thanks to our growers in the Caribbean), but they’re at their peak during the spring and summer months when they are available locally. Only in the spring will a simple English pea take center stage in the pasta course or steal the spotlight on the main plate.
Over the river and through the woods…is where you’ll find a fiddlehead fern! Fiddlehead ferns are actually the unfurled head of a wild fern, located by experts in the wild and harvested by hand (fair warning: DO NOT forage for your own fiddleheads, as some similar-looking varieties of fern are unsafe to eat! Experts only!). These ferns emerge from the leaf litter at the first signs of spring, and are gone soon after. Foragers follow the “bloom” as fiddlehead patches pop up around the country so we can enjoy them through the whole spring. Are they worth the effort and the hype? We think so. They have a delicate, almost-mysterious flavor akin to that of asparagus and artichoke with a hint of grassy, mushroom-like woodsy-ness. And their texture is snappy, like a perfectly-cooked asparagus or snap pea. Fiddleheads are a bit labor intensive: they must be washed vigorously in several changes of cold water to remove any remaining leaf litter, and they MUST be cooked before eating. But you have options. Boil them, steam them, or sauté them (or a combination of the three). They are most often paired with other spring delicacies like ramps, morels, English peas, and spring garlic. And we definitely recommend serving them whole – that pretty “fiddlehead” appearance is a part of the appeal!
Once a year during the spring, when hardneck (AKA purple) garlic plants are in bloom after a long winter, they sprout long, bright-green, curvaceous stems topped by an unopened flower bud. Meet garlic scapes! These decorative stems pack in BIG flavor – like fresh, uncured garlic plus black pepper and grass. While those with strong constitutions (and dinner-mates who don’t mind a bit of garlic breath) can certainly enjoy scapes raw, they are best when sautéed, grilled, blistered, blanched, or pickled. Garlic scape pesto is a sure-fire winner on a simple, spring bucatini dish. Pickled garlic scapes make a “WOW” pizza topping. Sautéed, tender garlic scapes add a garlicy punch to any seasonal spring vegetable dish. Or maybe use them in an unconventional centerpiece!
Harvested in the wild by expert foragers, like fiddlehead ferns, ramps are a seasonal spring specialty that we take when we can get! They’re a source of some hysteria in the foodie and chef world…but why? Let’s get into it. Ramps are native to the Eastern seaboard of North America and have been a part of Canadian and Appalachian culture for more than a century. In fact, there are a number of ramp-themed festivals in West Virginia and Tennessee during April and May. While they’re sometimes called a wild leek, they’re actually botanically closer to a wild garlic. The entire plant is edible from deep green leaves to white-pink stem. The flavor is BOLD with the intensity of fresh raw garlic and onion combined. Cooked, the flavor mellows, but doesn’t fade. Most often sautéed or pickled, ramps make the perfect pairing with fattier foods and a truly magical accompaniment for eggs. And that pungent flavor is good for more than just frittatas: ramps are traditionally used as a way to cleanse the blood after a long, stagnant winter. No wonder ramps are one of the most talked-about items during the spring months!
Handle with care! Stinging nettles live up to their name: when raw, their leaves are equipped with tiny hairs that release an itchy histamine when touched, so you’ll get a little zap when you handle them with bare hands. Always use gloves (latex is fine) when handling raw nettles! However, once the leaves are cooked or dried, they lose their namesake sting. While it seems like a royal pain (literally) to handle nettles, they offer a number of benefits to balance the risk. Nettles have a wonderful grassy flavor with notes of spinach and green tea. A variety of wild nettle is used in traditional Greek spanakopita, and the blanched green can also be pureed and incorporated into pasta dough, pesto, or soups. Even more interesting, nettles have a long history of medicinal use. In ancient Greece they were known to be a cleansing tonic and blood purifier. Over the years they’ve been used traditionally to address arthritis, allergies, inflammation, anemia, hair health, and more. You can’t ask for a better way to clear out the winter doldrums.
White asparagus is a European tradition. Ubiquitous in Germany, this albino vegetable is the same variety of asparagus we know and love, just grown in complete darkness. With no light available to process, the asparagus never develops chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green! The flavor of white asparagus is similar to that of green, but milder with distinct herbaceous and nutty undertones. The stems tend to be thicker and have a tough outer skin that should be peeled before cooking. Once peeled, the stem is exceptionally tender with an almost buttery texture – but distinct bitter taste. As versatile as green asparagus, white asparagus can be simply sautéed, blended into soup, grilled whole, or roasted, but in Europe it is most commonly steamed or baked and served with a creamy sauce like hollandaise or rich cheese like Taleggio.
Spring, Specialty Produce, Fruits, Vegetables, Foodservice