Ramps are fine. I will not bash any of the members of the House Of Allium, one of the most illustrious families of food. Tasty things can and have been done with them! But they are neither the only nor the best item that springtime has to offer. Eating seasonally does not necessarily require spending seven dollars on five tiny leafy scallions. This is not ramp season, my friends. This is a time of so much more. Here’s a list of timely delicacies you should be gorging on, sans ramps.
SHAD and SHAD ROE
Shad is a fish in the herring family, sometimes called a river herring. It migrates in the springtime along the rivers of the northeast and mid-Atlantic U.S. George Washington caught them in the Potomac. In 2010, shad fishing in the Hudson was outlawed, due to population crash—but the Delaware river is having a good run this year. It is also delicious, though like so many of the Atlantic’s great and humble fishes, it is oily and bony and kind of a pain in the ass to prepare. But do not let this deter you!
What to do with it: You can purchase it whole, and try to get females. The body can be roasted, grilled, smoked, or cedar-planked—like a lot of oily fish, it takes well to smoke—but the true prize is the roe. You can also get shad deboned almost anywhere you can get shad (try Citarella); that’s easier on the bone-averse. And you can also buy sets. Shad roe is one of the Atlantic’s great delicacies, tasting almost like sweetbreads. Sautee it in bacon fat and serve it with potatoes, herbs, and a squeeze of lemon, or roast it slowly.
Asparagus is the best. You should eat some!
What to do with it: Raw in salads, grilled, stir-fried, shaved and used as “pasta,” pulverized into pesto, roasted. My favorite is a pizza, with some kind of herb pesto, goat cheese, asparagus on top, and an egg. Pre-bake the pizza with everything but the egg, then crack the egg in the middle of the pie and continue baking until the white of the egg sets but the yolk is still runny.
Stinging nettles are a menacing, vindictive weed, covered with thousands of tiny poisonous spikes that hurt when you touch them. Punish this awful plant by eating it. Luckily, it’s also delicious, kind of like spinach, but with a stronger flavor, and remarkably good for you. It’s one of the few greens that has a lot of protein, so it’s great for vegetarians.
What to do with it: Use gloves when handling—they seriously do hurt—and remove the leaves from the stems. Wash ’em. Then sautee the same way you would spinach; heat (or even water) removes the stupid little spines. They are spectacular with pasta, like a lot of spring ingredients. Try mixing them with ricotta for a ravioli stuffing or lasagna layer.
Rhubarb is a great, underrated vegetable. It’s kind of sour naturally, so it’s usually used to counterbalance sweet items in desserts, but you can use that sweet-sour thing for savory dishes, too.
What to do with it: Rhubarb is mostly water, so it’ll break down pretty much any way you cook it. Chop it up and stew it with a lot of sugar and a little salt (and any other fruit, if you want) for a compote. Rhubarb compote is awesome on crepes or pancakes but even better on vanilla ice cream. (Oh mannnnn rhubarb compote on vanilla ice cream so goooood.) Or you could roast with less sugar and a little orange juice, mash, and use as a thick sweet/sour sauce for roast pork.
Peas and pea shoots are delicate and sweet, and are great in simple preparations:risotto, sauteed with prosciutto and served with pasta, that kind of thing.
What to do with it: My favorite thing to do with edible-pod peas, like sugar snap peas, is a sort of inauthentic Thai-style stir-fry. Sweat garlic, onion, and ginger in a wok on low heat, then turn it up to high and toss in the (trimmed) peas and a handful of peanuts. Cook briefly—they should be hot but still very crisp—and serve with a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, and chili garlic paste (the kind that looks like chunky sriracha and comes in a little cylindrical plastic jar). Excellent with fish.
The fava bean, or broad bean, is sweeter and lighter than most legumes we get here in New York, but that just means that whatever you use it for will end up sweeter and lighter and more delicious.
What to do with it: They’re kind of a pain to shell; there’s actually two seed-coverings, so you have to shell them, boil them, shock them in ice water, and then pop them out of their second skin. But they keep at that stage for awhile, and they are very, very tasty. You can: Make a hummus-like dip with olive oil and basil; deep-fry them and season with salt and chili powder (this makes them into crunchy bar snacks); throw whole into vegetable soups; eat in salads with peas, mint, pine nuts, and feta cheese; or, for something heartier, boil and smash and use them as a healthier, richer version of mashed potatoes.
Morels are the little, very expensive honeycomb-looking mushrooms you skip over at Whole Foods because they cost like one month’s rent/lb. They’re slightly cheaper when they’re in season around here, and you can also get a guide and go out mushrooming in the forest, which is, yes, the kind of thing you’ll be a LITTLE embarrassed to do, but also you’re basically just going for a nice walk in the woods and then you come away with like fifty bucks worth of delicious mushrooms, so.
What to do with it: Clean them with a brush; like other mushrooms, they’ll soak up water and lose their nice texture if you wash them in water. They’re slightly toxic when raw, but are very easy and forgiving to cook. They pair especially well with eggs. You can sautee in butter and drop a poached or sunny-side egg on top. You can sautee with peas, put them in a little ramekin, crack an egg on top, and grate some parmesan over that, then bake until the whites of the egg are set. You can do a simple pan-fry with an egg batter and breadcrumbs. They are also excellent with game, especially venison.
Ah ha, you thought this was all going to be tender shoots and legumes and colonial-sounding stuff from the northeast, didn’t you? I have been told on good authority that New York is not the only place with seasons, and that in other parts of the world, fruits and vegetables have ebbs and flows in much the same way they do here! Mangoes begin coming into season in Florida in May, continuing into October, but they are in season in springtime from Mexico on down through Central America. Since we’ve gotten pretty good at moving stuff around with planes and boats and things, you can enjoy them in the borough or northern state of your choosing!
There are hundreds of varieties of mango beyond the Tommy Atkins mango, the jumbo red and green variety we mostly see in this part of the world. Slightly less common, but much more delicious, is the Ataulfo or champagne mango, a smaller, golden, kidney-shaped fruit that’s more intense in flavor and more lenient in its ripening cycle. It’s hard to find the more exotic varieties here; you can try Indian markets in Jackson Heights or Mexican markets in Sunset Park, but I can’t promise you’ll find anything.
What to do with it: Both the Tommy Atkins and Ataulfo mango should be a bit soft to the touch, like a ripe avocado. Completely unripe, green mangoes can be used for salads and slaws, but just a hard, “unripe” mango is not usually “green” and will be too sweet for this. Ripe mangoes are just about perfect raw, but I also really like throwing them in a food processor with cayenne pepper, a little lime juice, and salt, blending them up, and pouring them into popsicle molds for chili-mango popsicles.