The Joys of Spring Cooking

Set aside winter's root vegetables and jazz up your meals with a splash of green.

Finally some encouraging spring signs are showing up in the grocery store produce section. After a winter of root vegetables, it is nice to see green again.

Spiky artichokes, vibrant fava beans encased in their unique pods and crispy fresh spinach are three great choices for good and healthy spring eating. I don't know why artichokes convey such mystery. I will grant that they are fussy to clean-as part of the thistle family-but once you get to the heart of the matter (the artichoke heart, that is), it is a cinch to cook them. Full of vitamins and minerals, artichokes lend themselves to all kinds of preparations-from braising to boiling to roasting and stuffing, even to frying them whole, which in ancient Roman Jewish culture was a tradition known as carciofi alla Judea. When you eat an artichoke, you detect a slightly sweet taste; that is the cynarin, a compound found in artichokes that actually stimulates digestion. Don't enjoy only the artichoke heart-the tender insides of the leaves are edible, too. Dip them into melted butter.

Fava beans tend to be another one of those mystery vegetables that few people know what to do with. A favorite of Mediterranean countries for centuries, fava beans are a classic legume. With their soft green pods that yield tender, sweet beans, fava beans are perfect raw in salads, or steamed or sautéed and mixed with fresh pasta dishes. Puréed, fava beans are a nutritious and different spread for topping toasted bread, or mixed into soup as a thickener.

Packed with nutrients, spinach should be a kid's best friend. But getting children to eat this spring vegetable can be difficult. Start by letting them help you with the preparation. Fresh leaves are ideal in a Waldorf salad with apple chunks, raisins and nuts, or sautéed with a little onion and garlic. Mostly water, spinach should really not be boiled. To cook it, just wilt it down in a pot or sauté pan with only the water clinging to its rinsed leaves. Let it cool a bit and then squeeze the spinach dry for use in soups, as fillings or just as a nice side dish.

So make a choice to go green, and let spring's offering of vegetables end your rut or predictable dinner routine.

Carciofi Alla Romana (Roman-Style Artichokes)

Clusters of plump, violet-tinged artichokes are a definite sign of spring. When they are in season, my enthusiasm for them runs deep, but it does not seem to convince many of my fellow cooks about the virtues of this almost exotic vegetable. The time required to prep an artichoke seems to be its downfall. Rather than struggle to get at the hairy choke and remove stubborn and prickly leaves, I offer a simpler, gentler way to approach them.

Serves 4

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
4 large artichokes, washed and drained
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons minced mint
2 cloves garlic, minced
Coarse salt and coarse ground black pepper

1. Have ready a large bowl of cold water and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Trim ¼ inch off the top of each artichoke and the same amount off the stem. Peel the stems with a vegetable peeler to remove the outer layer. Carefully remove the first two outer rows of leaves and trim the thorny pinchers off the remaining leaves with scissors. With a sharp knife, cut the artichoke in half horizontally, and use a spoon to remove the yellowish center leaves and scoop out the hairy choke. As you prepare the artichokes, toss them in the bowl of cold water.

2. Drain the artichokes from the water and place them, cut side down, in the base of a large saucepan. Add the wine, oil, parsley, mint, garlic, remaining lemon juice and 1½ cups water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat to low and cook the artichokes, turning them occasionally until they are tender (about 10-12 minutes). It should be easy to just pick off a leave when they are cooked.

4. Transfer the artichokes to a serving platter and pour any pan juices over the tops. Serve two halves per person.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Family Classics

Fave e Parmigiano-Reggiano (Fava Bean and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Cylinders)

Fava beans, both fresh and dried, are a Mediterranean staple and have been for centuries. Mostly boiled and dressed with olive oil and served with salt, fava beans are also mashed for a spread atop bread, or added to casseroles, soups and salads. And even though the beans are associated with humble cooking, they take on gourmet significance when wrapped in easy-to-make ParmigianoReggiano cheese cylinders for a great presentation.

Serves 6

2½ cups grated ParmigianoReggiano cheese, plus shavings for garnish, divided
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large shallot, minced
2 tablespoons minced tarragon
Salt, to taste, plus 1 teaspoon
Pepper, to taste
2 pounds fava beans, cooked with skin removed
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced

1. Heat a nonstick medium sauté pan. Spread ½ cup of the cheese in the pan to form a rectangular strip that is 2 inches wide and 6 inches long. Allow the cheese strip to melt, then carefully remove from the pan, wrap the strip around a glass and allow it to cool. Make five more and set aside.

2. Whisk the olive oil and vinegar together. Add the garlic, shallot and tarragon, and whisk again. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and set aside. (The dressing can be made ahead of time and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature to use.)

3. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add 1 teaspoon of salt. Add the fava beans and cook them until you can easily slip off the outer skin. Drain and transfer to a bowl. When cool enough to handle, slip off the outer, pale-green skin to reveal the bright green bean beneath.

4. Add the fava beans and celery to the olive oil mixture and toss well. Allow to marinate for 30 minutes.

5. When ready to serve, place one of the six cylinders of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on each of 6 individual salad plates. Carefully divide and fill the center of each cylinder with some of the fava-bean mixture. Top each with a few shavings of cheese. Any left over fava-bean mixture can be scattered around each plate. Serve at room temperature.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Family Classics

Spinach Soup

Pastina, those tiny beads of hard semolina pasta, always have a place in chicken soup, and children especially seem to love scooping them up. This version takes minutes to prepare with canned, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth. This recipe can easily be cut in half.

Serves 8

2 quarts prepared, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup pastina
4 cups washed spinach leaves, torn into small pieces
4 eggs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Bring the broth to a boil in a soup pot, stir in the pastina, cover the pot and cook for 5 minutes over medium-high heat.

2. Lower the heat to medium, stir in the fresh spinach and cook for 1 minute.

3. Whisk the eggs and cheese together in a soup tureen or deep bowl. Slowly ladle the hot soup into the soup tureen; stir the soup as you ladle.

4. The heat will cook the egg. Serve immediately.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Pronto