Ring in Spring with Fresh Produce

Lord Alfred Tennyson famously said, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But for chefs, springtime means a return to fresh, locally cultivated produce.

click to enlarge Chef Mike Florea
Chef Mike Florea

Lord Alfred Tennyson famously said, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But for chefs, springtime means a return to fresh, locally cultivated produce, as well as some of the more exotic items foraged from our bountiful Ohio Valley forests. 

“I love spring,” says chef Mike Florea of Maribelle’s eat + drink in Oakley. “It comes when produce has reached its limit from the winter and when you need sunshine on your menu. It comes when you want to get away from heavy braises and you just want to eat fresh.”

Local chefs’ favorite spring produce — for Florea that’s English peas and rhubarb — should be sprouting up on restaurant menus all over town soon. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to head off into the woods for your own spring dinner fixins, just remember that rule No. 1 in foraging is to not kill yourself or anyone else with poisonous produce, so take a general reference book such as Lee Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants

Not up for all that communing with nature? No problem: Madison’s at Findlay Market is a great place to find all the wonderful veg listed below. (We’ve also got one of Florea’s favorite spring recipes: English pea purée, a delectable topping for sourdough toast.)

  • Ramps: The ramp, otherwise known as a wild leek, is a relative of the onion and native to North America. The bulb resembles that of a scallion, but the leaf is wide, flat and bright green. The flavor of ramps is a particularly strong combination of onions and garlic. Use them as a substitute in any recipe that calls for scallions or leeks.
  • Peas: Sweet and tender, fresh spring peas are nothing like the grey, mushy canned crap your mother used to force you to eat as a child. Eat these delicate little darlings raw in salads or blanched oh-so-briefly in boiling water so as not to overcook.
  • Rhubarb: Whether it’s pie, syrup, jam, cobbler, crisp or anything else, there’s almost nothing in which this super versatile vegetable can’t star. But make sure to give rhubarb a chance in savory dishes as well; its tart taste pairs beautifully when stewed with other fruits and served with pork.
  • Fiddlehead ferns: The tender, unfurled fronds of the ostrich fern, otherwise known as fiddleheads, need to be cooked thoroughly before eating. Look for small, firm specimens; plan on eating them within a day or two of bringing them home, and use as you would asparagus or green beans. 
  • Dandelion greens: I hope it goes without saying that if you spray any weed-killing chemicals on your yard you know not to pick and eat your own dandelion greens, but the fresh, young pesticide-free leaves of this common garden “pest” are a delicious bitter addition to your dinner salad.
  • Wild mushrooms (especially morels): There are more than 2,000 kinds of wild mushrooms in Ohio, and folks are so crazy for them that they tend to keep their personal hunting grounds a deep, dark secret. But serious precautions — like consulting the aforementioned field guide — are absolutely necessary. Quite a few wild mushrooms are poisonous, even deadly. And some — like the toxic false morel — can closely resemble the ones you don’t want to pass up.
English Pea Purée and Sixteen Bricks Toast
Recipe provided by Chef Mike Florea

  • 5 cups English peas
  • 1 1/2 cups fruity extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup mint leaves 
  • 1/2 cup tarragon leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Sixteen Bricks sourdough cut into 1-inch thick slices
  • Parmigiano Reggiano  

Instructions: Carefully drop the peas into a pot of rapidly boiling water. Let them cook for just 1 1/2 minutes. Drain the peas quickly in a colander and immediately place them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.
Place blanched peas into a food processor with garlic, tarragon and mint. Turn on and let run for 10 seconds. Slowly drizzle in olive oil. Remove from food processor and place in a bowl. Fold in salt and pepper as needed. 
Place bread on a grill with butter until grilled to your liking. Slather pea purée on top. Finish with some salt, a little drizzle of olive oil and freshly shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.

And as a bonus, here's a rhubarb recipe from chef Florea.

Rhubarb Butter
“At Maribelle's we use this on a sandwich of roasted turkey with Kenny's Farmhouse fromage blanc, Roma tomato and greens on a Servatii’s pretzel,” says Florea.
  • 10 stalks rhubarb-greens removed, chopped
  • 1 ½ cups of sugar
  • 1 tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 tbsp. red wine 
  • 2 tsp. salt 
  • 2 tsp. pepper 
  • 2 tsp. red pepper flake
Instructions: Place all ingredients in a pot on low heat until the rhubarb breaks down. Remove from heat and purée the rhubarb in a blender or food processor. Place the rhubarb purée back in pot and reduce over low heat, stirring constantly until it is a thick consistency. 

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