While amazing, bright flavors (and colors) are an obvious reason to embrace the spring season, eating fresh spring produce is good for plenty more reasons. While almost all produce can be grown somewhere year-round, trucking produce across the country (or the world) can be pretty rough. According to the USDA, buying local, seasonal produce may reduce our carbon footprint and help local economies. Plus, it might even result in more nutritious produce. Here are some of the best picks for spring, how to use 'em, and what to look for when digging through the produce aisle.
Illustration by Christopher Hardgrove
Arugula This green may have a serious identity crisis — it goes by rocket, roquette, rugula, and rucola — but we still love its peppery flavor. It's typically sold in bunches or loose with attached roots and only stays fresh for a couple of days. It's ultra-low in calories and packs a healthy dose of vitamin K. It's best in the early spring, and while it's great as a salad green, don't shy away from cooking it up in hot dishes, too.
Watercress As its name suggests, this green crops up around bodies of water, but is actually not too different from arugula in flavor. It's one of a few veggies that grows naturally during the spring in the north. Look for crisp, deep green and try it hot or cold. This bad boy will keep for up to five days in the fridge.
Dandelion Greens These so-called "weeds" are named after the "dent de lion" (that's lion's tooth, in French) they resemble. They have a bitter, tangy flavor and are good in salads or warm dishes. Plus, they're packed with vitamins A and K (per cup, more than 100 and 500 percent of the daily value, respectively). The best greens pop up during early spring and should be bright green and crisp. At home, chill them tightly wrapped in plastic for up to five days.
Fennel It's where licorice gets it's flavor, but trust us — the real deal is way better than everyone's least favorite Jelly Belly. Though technically available all winter, early spring is the perfect time to add fennel to a crisp salad. A cup of it has a respectable 3 grams of fiber and 17 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. The entire plant is edible, from it's white bulb to bright-green feathery fronds. The flavor is similar to licorice, but sweeter and subtler, and cooking tones down that flavor even more.
Radishes They may be available year-round, but these roots are at their best all spring. While they're popular in salads and slaws, try them hot in pasta on those nights before spring really warms up. They're rich in B vitamins and potassium, but low in calories.
Leeks It's a scallion! No, it's a palm frond! No, it's… a leek? These superfoods are a part of the onion family but have a similar but subtler, sweeter flavor. Cooked, they perfectly complement soups, potatoes, rice, lemon, and seafood. Store them whole and well-sealed in a plastic bag, and prep them by removing the tall stalks and bright-green fronds. Once sliced, be sure to rinse thoroughly to remove any dirt or debris. While these green beauties are available year-round, their flavor is best during the spring and fall.
Ramps Just call these veggies "Leeks Gone Wild." OK, technically, they're known as "wild leeks," but same thing, right? They’re grown in the U.S. from March to June and may only be available at specialty produce markets. But believe us, they're worth it. Roughly the size of scallions — but with leaves — the entire plant can be eaten, and they're packed with garlicky flavor.
Artichoke Look for these globes all spring — they're in season from March to May. To eat this porcupine-lookin' plant, clip off the sharp ends of any outer leaves, boil or steam, and peel the leaves off one by one. Drag the leaves through the teeth to pull off the yummy meat. After all the outer leaves are peeled and the center (that's the "choke" — don't eat it, you'll choke!) is removed easily with a spoon, what's left is the artichoke heart. Nutritonal bonus points: Artichokes are a great source of prebiotics, which feed probiotics, or good-for-you bacteria that help with digestion and protect the body from other bad bacteria A double-blind, placeb0-controlled, cross-over study to establish the bifidogenic effect of a very-long-chain inulin extracted from globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) in healthy human subjects. Costabile, A., Kolida, S., Klinder, A., et al. Food Microbial Sciences, School of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University of Reading, UK. The British Journal of Nutrition, 2010 Oct; 104(7):1007-17. .
Asparagus What's a spring produce list without asparagus? Bunches of these beauties are pretty much available all spring (February to June), though hothouses make them accessible year-round. Try to buy asparagus just before using it, as storage can be a pain. In a pinch, either wrap the ends in a wet paper towel and then seal up the bunch or stand the stalks up in about an inch of water and cover with plastic wrap or a plastic baggie. To prep, snap off the thicker, woody end of the asparagus (simply hold one end in each hand and bend — it'll naturally snap at the right spot). Fatter stalks can also be peeled toward the bottom to make the stem a more even thickness.
Rhubarb Peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, strawberry and rhubarb — this is a flavor combination that'll never get old. The best part? Baking rhubarb (pie, anyone?) is the best way to unleash its cancer-fighting chemicals. Though technically a vegetable, this sour stalk can complement fruit in desserts all spring long. It grows in cold climates and peaks from April to June, is best extremely fresh (think: 3 days old or younger), and should be stored tightly sealed in a plastic bag or wrap. Wash 'em and remove leaves just before using.
Fava Beans These uncommon legumes resemble lima beans and have a smooth texture and nutty flavor. Remember: They must be removed from the shells before eating (unless they're very young), which can be a complicated process. First, remove the outer shell, which resembles a long, flat green bean. Parboil and remove the tough inner shell from each individual bean. But they're worth it — a cup of cooked beans has 9 grams of fiber and 13 grams of protein! Find 'em at farmers markets and specialty stores from late March to early May — they're especially good in soups and stews.
Sugar Snap Peas This hybrid veggie is a cross between English peas and snow peas, and it's crisp and sweet. Available during spring and fall, unlike favas, the whole bean is edible — pod and all. Even though they're low in calories, they're still a great source of vitamin C (more than 60 percent of the daily value in one cup). They're great raw, but can be cooked, too. Look for plump, bright green pods.
Fiddlehead Ferns These veggies are to asparagus what diamonds are to cubic zirconia — rare and way better looking. They grow only in the eastern half of North America from Canada to Virginia and peak for about two weeks sometime between April and July (depending on the region). These little gems are quite fashionable, too — they slightly resemble coiled asparagus in texture and flavor. They're best cooked by a quick blanch and sauté. Pair them with morel mushrooms, often in season around the same time and a good complement to their flavor.
Morel Mushrooms Morels are basically truffles' more budget-friendly cousin. Though still not cheap, they’re a great way to add that nutty mushroom flavor to any dish. They can be found in the U.S. from March to May, and some folks even hunt them in the wild (but let's leave that to the professionals, folks). Don't wash morels under running water, as they act like sponges and soak it all up! Instead, use a damp towel to wipe away dirt before storing them in a paper bag.
Vidalia Onions Just like the Southern belles of its namesake — Vidalia, Georgia — these onions are super-sweet. They're also large and juicy (but we're not talking about Georgians anymore...) and available from May to June only in the Southeast — though folks elsewhere may be able to get them shipped during those prime months. Store them somewhere cool and well-ventilated.
Originally posted March 2012. Updated April 2013.
All of these are great, of course — but what are your all-time spring seasonal favorites? Share with us in the comments below, or join the conversation over at our Greatist Community Forums!