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Chef John Ash shares 12 of his favorite springtime recipes

According to Robin Williams, spring is nature's way of saying, “Let's party!”

Everything bounces back to life. It is nature’s rebirth, and special ingredients we haven’t seen for a while become available again.

Here are a few of my favorite harbingers of spring.

Asparagus

Asparagus is special to me. I have fond memories of wild asparagus from my time growing up on my grandparents’ ranch in Colorado. The ranch was at about 8,000 feet elevation, and winters were harsh at that altitude.

Wild asparagus popping up, usually in early to mid-April, was a sure sign the weather finally was going to warm and summer was on the horizon. My grandmother and I would pick the wild asparagus and eat much of it raw, right on the spot. If you have never eaten just-picked asparagus, raw or cooked, it has a delicious sweet, green flavor. Just make sure it’s as close to harvest as possible. Its sweet flavor fades quickly after harvest.

Grilled Asparagus Salad with Pancetta and Egg

Serves 6

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons grainy Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey, or to taste

1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pound medium asparagus, tough base trimmed and discarded

6 ounces pancetta, cut ¼ inch thick and diced

Spring salad (see below)

3 soft-center hard-boiled eggs (see recipe below)

Freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a small bowl, whisk 3 tablespoons of the olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, honey and shallot. Season to your taste with salt and pepper. Set vinaigrette aside.

Brush the asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. On a hot grill or with a ridged grill pan, cook the asparagus until nicely marked but still crisp-tender, about 4 minutes, depending on thickness. Set aside.

Over medium heat, add the pancetta to a sauté pan with remaining tablespoon of oil and cook until nicely browned, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

Toss the herb salad with the vinaigrette. Arrange asparagus on plates topped with the dressed herb salad, pancetta, half an egg and some shaved cheese. Season lightly with salt and pepper and serve.

Spring salad: A salad of baby greens, endive and sweet herbs is delicate and needs to be dressed just before serving. Use whatever you like. Here is a suggestion: three handfuls of baby lettuces, one small endive, one small handful frisée, young nasturtium leaves, parsley, mint and basil (all small or torn), plus a few celery leaves from the center of a bunch.

Soft-center hard-boiled eggs: Lower three large organic eggs into a small saucepan of boiling water. Simmer for exactly 8 minutes. Remove eggs and plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. When the eggs are cool, tap the shells to crack them. This allows the cold water to seep between the eggs and shells making them easy to peel. Cut in half. If you like a softer yolk, cut cooking time by 30 seconds.

Artichokes

Artichokes are a member of the thistle family, and their season is spring into summer. “Baby” artichokes are not a different variety from regular artichokes. It’s just a smaller but fully mature version of the traditional artichoke. Its small size is the result of being picked from the lower part of the plant. We love them because you can eat the whole thing raw or cooked after trimming. They are easy to prepare and don’t have that fuzzy, inedible choke in the center.

This batter and technique also makes the best onion rings. Use any variety of sweet white onions in the market, cut into ½-inch rings.

Crispy Fried Baby Artichokes

Makes 24

12 baby artichokes

Vegetable oil, such as canola, for frying

Batter (recipe below)

Seasoned salt

Lemon wedges

Discard the outer leaves of the artichokes until you reach the pale green centers. Cut off the base, if it’s still there, and the top ¼ inch or so of each and discard. Cut the artichokes in half and drop in the batter to coat.

Heat an inch or 2 of vegetable oil in a deep saucepan or fryer to 360 degrees. Briefly drain half the artichokes and carefully slide them into the hot oil and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and cook the remaining artichokes the same way. Sprinkle on a little seasoned salt and serve warm with lemon wedges to squeeze over.

Batter

½ cup flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup cornstarch

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ cup cold water

½ cup vodka (see note below)

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cornstarch, baking soda and baking powder.

In a separate bowl, stir the water and vodka together. Slowly pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture, gently stirring to combine. It should be the consistency of pancake batter. Add more water or equal parts flour and cornstarch as needed.

Note: Vodka helps fried foods become crispy compared to water or other liquids commonly used to make batters. During deep-frying, liquid in the batter vaporizes, which both dehydrates the batter and creates bubbles that give it more surface area. The dehydrated batter then begins browning, which ultimately leads to that crispy crust. Because vodka is more volatile than water, it evaporates more quickly, which dries out the batter faster and more violently. That creates larger bubbles and even more surface area, in turn resulting in a much crispier crust. Courtesy to J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats.

Spring Lamb

In many parts of the world, true, tender “spring” milk-fed lamb is available for a short time and is less than 6 weeks old. You won’t see it in the United States partly because it is expensive and because many of us have an aversion to harvesting such young lamb. Our “spring” lamb here is three to five months old, born in late winter or early spring and sold usually before the first of July. For the following recipe, look for small racks, hopefully from a local rancher.

Spring Lamb with Salsa Verde

Serves 4 to 6

2 8-bone racks of lamb, frenched (see note below)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons pressed or finely minced garlic

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

Rosemary sprigs for garnish

Salsa Verde, optional (recipe follows)

Season the racks generously with salt and pepper. Combine the garlic, chopped rosemary and olive oil and rub each rack with the mixture. Place the racks, fatty side up, in a roasting pan and leave them at room temperature for an hour or so. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, quickly brown each rack on both sides over medium-high heat, about 3 minutes total. Turn racks fat side up and roast for 15-18 minutes, until they are nicely colored and have an interior temperature of 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer for medium-rare. Remove from the oven, cover loosely with foil and let rest for about 10 minutes.

Transfer the racks to a cutting board. Slice between the bones and arrange the lamb chops on the warm platter with rosemary sprigs. Serve with salsa verde, if desired.

Note: If it hasn’t already been done, politely ask your butcher to “french” the racks for you. This means trimming the bones of their fat and gristle. You can also do it yourself. There are lots of prompts on the internet.

This is a quick little sauce of Spanish origin that is delicious on all kinds of grilled, pan-seared or roasted meats, fish and vegetables. Note that I’ve used poached garlic rather than fresh and raw. This is important if you are going to make the sauce ahead. Within a short time, raw garlic can become harsh and hot. Poached garlic maintains its more subtle and sweet flavor and doesn’t overpower the sauce as it sits.

Salsa Verde

Makes about 1 cup

1 cup coarsely chopped parsley

4 anchovy fillets in oil

2 tablespoons drained capers

2 tablespoons poached garlic (see note below)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or mint or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

⅔ cup or so fruity extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Add the parsley, anchovies, capers, garlic, basil and zest to a food processor or blender. With machine running, slowly add the oil until just blended. Sauce should still have a little texture. Season with salt and pepper. Can be stored covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day.

Note: To poach garlic, separate cloves but don’t peel. Place in a small saucepan and cover with at least ½ inch of cold water. Place on stove over high heat and bring to a boil. As soon as water boils, drain and rinse to cool the cloves. Remove husk from the garlic and store covered in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Stinging Nettles

Despite the sting of their prickly leaves, nettles both taste good and are good for you. They are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and vitamins A and C. The word “nettle” describes more than 40 different flowering plant species from the Urtica genus, which comes from the Latin word “uro,” meaning “I burn.” The plant is native to Europe, Asia, Africa and North America and is found wild throughout the continental United States. Nettles are readily available in spring and early summer to forage or buy at farmer’s markets.

To forage, pick the leaves while wearing thick gloves and a long-sleeved shirt (and pants). Use rubber gloves when handling them in the kitchen. Nettles are easy to prepare. When steamed, sautéed or parboiled, they lose their sting and don't fall apart or turn a dull color. Store nettles in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Green nettles also can be blanched and frozen.

To cook nettles, wash and drain, discarding stems. Place the leaves in a pot of boiling salted water and cook for a couple of minutes or until wilted. Drain in a colander and press out any excess water.

This pesto is delicious with pasta, of course, but also try adding it as a garnish to creamy soups or fold it into softened butter for a delicious topping for meats, fishes and vegetables.

Nettle Pesto

Makes ½ cup

1 cup cooked nettles (about 5 cups uncooked nettles)

4 tablespoons pine nuts

4 cloves garlic, sliced

½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Salt and pepper, to taste

To cook the nettles, place leaves in a pot of salted boiling water for 3 minutes or so, drain and squeeze dry. Coarsely chop.

In a food processor or blender, combine the pine nuts and garlic. Process in bursts to chop coarsely. Add the nettles, olive oil, cheese and zest and process until a thick green sauce forms. It can be as smooth or textured as you prefer. If the sauce is too thick, add a little more olive oil. Season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Pour into a glass jar or other container and top with a thin layer of olive oil to prevent the surface from discoloring. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

There is no Hollandaise here; instead, a purée of nettles takes its place.

Nettle “Eggs Benedict”

Serves 4

4 slices of prosciutto for the bacon

6 to 8 cups fresh nettle leaves

2 English muffins, split

½ cup butter

1 medium garlic clove, minced

1 small shallot, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Drops of lemon juice

4 large eggs

Vinegar

To make the prosciutto bacon, heat oven to 375 degrees. Set a rack on a rimmed baking sheet. Lay four thin slices of prosciutto on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet and bake until crisp, about 8 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

Bring salted water to a boil in a 2½-quart saucepan. Plunge in nettles and allow water to return to a boil and cook for a minute or two or until nettles are wilted. Drain, chop and set aside.

Place the muffins on a baking sheet and preheat the broiler. Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan on the stovetop. Brush muffins with some of the melted butter and broil until nicely toasted.

Meanwhile, add the garlic and shallot to the remaining butter in the pan and cook over moderate heat until softened but not brown. Add the blanched nettles to the pan and cook for a minute or two. Add mixture to a blender or food processor and process to a purée. Season to your taste with salt and pepper and drops of lemon juice. If you need to thin, add a tablespoon or so of hot water. Set aside and keep warm.

Poach the eggs in simmering water to which a splash of vinegar has been added.

To serve: Place toasted muffins on warm plates. Top each with the nettle purée and a slice of prosciutto bacon. Place a poached egg on top and serve.

Fava beans

Fresh fava beans are delicious but a little tedious to prepare. They require double shucking, so you might call in a friend to lend a hand. When I see fresh favas on a restaurant menu, I always order them knowing the time it takes to prepare them. Also, did you know fava bean leaves and flowers are edible? You don’t have to wait for the pods on your favas to mature. You can start eating the leaves as soon as flowers appear. Both are delicious. Use wherever you world use baby spinach.

You will need about 5 pounds of fava beans in the pod to yield 2 cups of mashed favas, but it is worth the effort. This recipe is adapted from one by David Tanis of the New York Times.

Mashed Fava Crostini

Makes about 2 cups, which is enough for about 30 crostini

5 pounds fava beans in the pod

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 teaspoons minced garlic

Pinch of crushed red pepper

½ teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary

1 baguette, thinly sliced

Coarse sea salt and/or freshly grated pecorino, optional

Shuck the beans from their pods, discarding the pods.

Blanch the beans: Drop shucked favas in boiling water and cook for 1 minute, then plunge into ice water. When cool, drain in a colander, then pierce outer skin from each bean with thumbnail and squeeze to slip off skins. Discard skins and set aside peeled favas. May be prepared up to 24 hours ahead of time.

Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add peeled favas and season generously with salt and pepper. Stir to coat with oil, add garlic and let sizzle for a few minutes without browning. Add ½ cup water, cover and let simmer until beans have softened and most of the liquid is gone, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat.

Using a potato masher or wooden spoon, mash favas roughly. (If favas are larger and starchier, they may have begun to fall apart already, which is fine.) Return pan to stove and turn heat to medium. Stir in crushed red pepper and rosemary (and a little water if the mash is too thick), adjust seasoning and transfer fava beans to a warm bowl.

Lightly toast baguette slices. Smear each toast with a tablespoon or so of mashed fava. Drizzle with more olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt and or cheese, if desired.

This is an ancient recipe from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. It celebrates spring with new, green favas and the young, white sheep’s milk cheeses which are made at that time. Do not use an aged, hard-grating cheese like pecorino romano. I remember cafes all over this region serving this both as an appetizer or as the cheese course following the meat course. I have blanched the favas here, but if you can find them very fresh, young and tender, do as the Italians do and eat them raw.

Fresh Fava Beans with Young Pecorino Cheese

Serves 4 to 6

4 pounds fresh, young, unshelled fava beans

1 pound young, fresh sheep’s milk cheese from Italy such as fiore sardo or California sheep’s milk ricotta

Fruity extra virgin olive oil, preferably olio nuovo

Fresh lemon wedges

Freshly ground pepper and coarse sea salt

Rustic with bread with a good crust and texture, such as ciabatta

Shell the favas and discard pods. Drop beans into boiling salted water and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge into ice water. Drain again and remove tough outer skin from each bean. Place beans in a bowl.

In any combination you like, serve thin slices of good fresh cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, a drop or two of lemon juice, freshly ground pepper and a few grains of flaky salt on top of a slice of good crusty peasant bread.

It may seem counterintuitive, but by seasoning the outside of the beans you get delicious stuff sticking to your fingers, which flavors the beans when you eat them!

Grilled Fava Beans

Serves 2 or more

1 pound fresh fava beans, in their pods

A couple glugs of good olive oil

A generous sprinkling of good salt

Optional: crushed red pepper flakes, lemon zest and/or chopped fresh herbs

In a large bowl, toss the fava bean pods with olive oil and salt. Arrange them in a single layer on a grill over medium-high heat. If you're using a grill pan, you may need to cook them in batches. Whether you use the outdoor grill or the grill pan, it’s important to cover with the hood or a flat sheet pan (if you’re using a grill pan) to keep the heat in and circulating.

Grill until blistered on one side, 3 to 4 minutes, then flip and grill a few minutes more on the other side. If you aren't sure when to pull them off, take a pod off the grill, open and taste a bean. You want the fava beans to be smooth and creamy when you pop them out of their skins, not undercooked. Keep in mind that they'll keep steaming in their pods for a few minutes after they come off the grill, unless you eat them as soon as you can handle the pods without burning your fingers, which is what I do.

Season the grilled favas with a bit more salt, if needed, and any herbs and/or lemon zest, if you like. To eat, pry open pods, pop out beans, pinch off tip of wrinkled skin with your fingernail and squeeze out tender, fragrant fava. Lick your oily, salty fingertips; it's part of the dish. Serve with radishes, sheep's milk cheese and slices of salami or prosciutto, if you like.

Green garlic

Sometimes called spring or new garlic, green garlic looks like a scallion but has a decidedly sweet garlic flavor. They are harvested before they form their familiar bulb. Like a leek, the whole plant is usable. It pairs well with all things spring, like new potatoes, onions, lamb, artichokes, peas and fava beans. If you don’t grow garlic, you usually can find green garlic at the farmers market in early spring.

Linguine with Green Garlic Clam Sauce

Serves 4

1 stick (4 ounces) good salted butter

3 cup minced green garlic, white and light green parts only

½ teaspoon chile flakes, or to taste

4 pounds Manila clams, scrubbed

½ cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces linguine

¼ cup loosely packed parsley, chopped

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add enough salt so it tastes like the sea.

Separately, heat the butter in a wide saucepan large enough to hold the clams. Add the garlic and chile flakes and cook over medium heat until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the clams, white wine and ½ cup of water and cook over high heat, covered, until the clams open, about 5 minutes. As they open, transfer them to a bowl.

When cool enough to handle, remove the clams from their shells (you might save a few in the shell for garnish). Discard the remaining shells. Chop clams or leave whole, your choice. Strain the clam juice through a fine-mesh strainer.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Meanwhile, wipe the saucepan clean. Return the clam meat and strained juice to the saucepan along with the parsley, lemon juice and zest. Reheat and season to your taste. Add the pasta and toss.

This is delicious with steamed artichokes, spooned over asparagus, as a topper for baked halibut or black cod and of course as a dip for lightly blanched veggies.

Green Garlic Dip

Serves 4

¾ cup minced green garlic, white and light green parts only

1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

⅔ cup fruity extra virgin olive oil

Salt, to taste

In a small saucepan, bring ¼ cup water and the green garlic to a gentle simmer, cover and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Strain the garlic and cool.

In a blender, purée the egg, vinegars and cooled green garlic on medium-high. With the blender running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream to emulsify. Season to your taste with salt. Store covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Meyer lemons

Meyer lemons are named for Frank N. Meyer, the agricultural explorer who identified the plant and brought it back to the U.S. in the early 20th century. He found these special lemons in China, where the plants were being used as decorative houseplants. Only in the last couple decades have they become a culinary specialty. They are thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and mandarin orange.

We are so lucky in Wine Country because Meyer lemons grow prolifically in home gardens and can handle our colder temperatures. Spring is their season. They have almost become like summer zucchini. Be careful of leaving your car unlocked or you might end up with a basket of Meyer lemons on the back seat! They have a delicious floral aroma and are not as acidic as regular lemons.

You certainly can make this recipe with whatever lemons you have. Ditch any concerns you have about making a soufflé. This is incredibly easy.

Meyer Lemon Soufflé

Serves 4

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted softened butter, plus more for greasing the ramekins

½ cup sugar, preferably superfine (see note below), plus more for dusting

5 eggs

Zest of 2 large lemons

⅓ cup lemon juice

Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter four 8-ounce ramekins and dust the bottoms and sides with sugar. Tap out any excess sugar. Place the ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet.

Separate the eggs, reserving all the whites and four yolks, separately.

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the butter, ¼ cup of the sugar, egg yolks and lemon zest and juice. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat; cool for 5 minutes.

In a bowl or with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites to form soft peaks. Whisk in the remaining ¼ cup superfine sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the whites have formed stiff peaks. Fold ⅓ of the egg whites into the lemon curd, then fold in the remaining egg whites.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared ramekins and smooth the tops. Place the sheet tray with the ramekins in the middle of the oven, immediately turn down the temperature to 375 degrees and bake until puffed and very lightly browned, 20 to 22 minutes. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve immediately.

Note: If you don’t have superfine sugar, pulse regular sugar in a food processor.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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