Califonia Bountiful

Spring brings more produce choices

Mar./Apr. 2007 California Country magazine

With spring’s abundant choices, produce pro Andy Powning offers tips on how to prepare what nature provides.

Spring has nearly sprung, bringing an even greater selection of colorful fruits and vegetables to grocery stores, farmers' markets and roadside stands.

"With this abundant assortment of California produce at hand, the question remains: How to prepare all that nature offers?" mused Andy Powning, produce specialist at GreenLeaf Produce in San Francisco and a reporter for "California Country," the California Farm Bureau Federation's television program.

For this time of year, Powning recommends:

Strawberries: They're with us year-round, but spring is prime time for those ripe, flavorful berries grown in Southern and Central California. Mix strawberries with Minneolas, mint and honey. Add a touch of light vinegar such as golden balsamic or champagne for an interesting appetizer or dessert. California is the nation's leading producer of strawberries. Last year, growers harvested more than 1.2 billion pounds, 88 percent of the country's total fresh and frozen strawberry production.

Rhubarb: Once classified as a vegetable, this hearty perennial was legally decreed as a fruit in 1947. Rhubarb is quite tart, but adding sugar and heat results in a distinct, mouthwatering flavor. Beyond strawberries, historic flavor pairings include oranges, ginger and angelica (a member of the parsley family). On the savory side, Poles pair it with potatoes and in Italy it is used to brew rabarbaro, an aperitif. Powning recommends combining it with strawberries for a rhubarb strawberry galette—French for a free-form, open-faced tart. It's fast and easy with some store-bought puff pastry.

Dates: There are many varieties to choose from, but Medjool is near the top of the delicious list because of its plumpness and high sugar content. Originally from Morocco, Medjool dates neared extinction, but they survived and many are now grown in Southern California. Try stuffing with cream cheese and toasted almonds as an appetizer, dessert or healthy snack.

Spring onions: These tender and young globes are, in Powning's words, "a breath of fresh air." Picked with vibrant, juicy greens attached, succulent spring onions are a bit milder in flavor than their cured cousins. They lend themselves to sautéing, braising and grilling. Farmers' markets typically carry them in a host of colors, shapes and sizes. Powning likes them braised, chopped and mashed into new potatoes with butter.

Asparagus: California leads the nation in asparagus production, harvesting more than 50,000 metric tons annually. "The fresher, the better" is especially true of asparagus, which is available in green, white and purple. To prepare, simple is best: Place prepped spears in boiling, salted water for a few minutes, until just tender, and drain. If serving hot, Powning recommends simply drying then dressing with butter or olive oil, and maybe a spritz of lemon and a squeeze of garlic. For cold preparations, plunge the cooked spears into ice water. This stops cooking and helps preserve the vibrant green color. Then drain, dry and dress with your favorite dressing or olive oil, salt and pepper.

Artichokes: The artichoke is a perennial plant that favors the cool coastal climates. California provides nearly 100 percent of artichokes grown in the United States. Although most people are used to eating cooked leaves with a dip of garlic mayonnaise, olive oil or melted butter, Powning offers this unique suggestion: Peel raw artichokes down to the heart and shave paper-thin. Mix with truffle oil and lemon and add Parmesan cheese shavings and chopped Italian parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.

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