By Stephen Wade
Many believe winter to be the cruelest season in the Northeast, especially New York: the grey, the wet, the cold and icy dampness of the dark months. They await spring not only for warmth and light, but for the beginning of the new bounty at farmers markets, the hues of green and pops of color signaling a return of warmth, hope, and joy.
This perception is the biggest Grindr profile joke ever, though. Winter is, if nothing else, consistent. One can warm up to it, find a certain joy in the reliable pleasures of the carrots, potatoes, and high-tunnel greens like kale and cabbage that lend themselves to the stews and roasts of the winter. It’s the cold, after all, that makes baking—and turning on your oven—a joy.
Spring? Spring is that flirty minx who strings you along and leaves you with blue balls. Spring is the season that gives you a day of warm sunshine only to belt you back into a week of cold gloom and high winds. Early spring, especially, is the season of produce that teases, with storage crops and last season’s apples until the greens, vine crops, and early fruit finally start rolling in around May or June.
Does that mean we have nothing to enjoy here in the Northeast for a couple of months? On the contrary, we have a small but substantial field of delicious things, both wild and cultivated, until the warmer days begin to catch up.
- Ramps & Garlic Mustard: The vanguard, the love, the rampage is real. These bulbs, native all the way up and down the Appalachias and east of the Mississippi, are a variety of wild leek. With their dagger-shaped leaves and ivory-white bulbs hued with violet, they have a mild garliciness in the leaves and bulbs, supplemented with an earthy grassiness, which makes sense as these are a product of wildcrafting (they need to be foraged, though some have some success in cultivating the bulbs). Ramps need to flower or have their roots be retained in soil to regrow, so be on the lookout for clean-cut bulbs, usually a sign that the bulb root has been kept in the ground, allowing it to properly repropogate itself. Also be on the lookout for other garlicky greens, including the invasive garlic mustard, which as the name implies, brings the heat and the garliciness, and stands up to high temperatures better than ramps, making it ideal for stir-fries and dumpling fillings.
- Nettles: Nettles have a bracing freshness. Cultivated or as a garden weed/foraged green, nettles are like a lighter bodied lacinato kale, with an added nutty kick. While their handling does require tongs or gloves—the feathery stingers will make ya itch a little—once they’re blanched they’re good to go, and make a fantastic pizza topping.
- Lamb & Veal: Spring isn’t about just new veg, but also new meats. Young lamb and veal (baby beef) are fresh out at this time, lighter in flavor, lower in fats, and surprisingly soft in their texture depending how well you cook them. Dairying herds will often thin them out based upon how many young new ones they can support, so some of your dairy farmers at market may have the meat available to you.
- Young Fresh Cheeses: As the snow melts and dairying animals of all stripes get back on pasture, some of the new fresh cheeses make their way to market. Usually you’ll find soft cheeses like ricotta or buche-style goat’s milk cheeses. There can also be some softly aged affairs, wrapped in spring greenery (like nettles or ramps, for example) or early season liquors or beers.
- Asparagus: The queen of all the early spring produce. While strawberries sometimes arrive around the same time, they aren’t worthwhile until midway through their season. Asparagus is prime as soon as it gets harvesting; good for roasting, eating raw, pureed in soups or any number of baking applications. The plants are thick bulbs called crowns, the spears rising up from the plant after anywhere between 3 and 7 years to get branching; thin spears are from younger plants, thicker ones from older crowns. It’s a short run, but glorious while they’re here, enough to bide the time until the real heavy breathing of late spring starts to occur…and then more goodies arrive.
Until then, happy market hunting! ///
With one foot in food policy, and another in hospitality, Stephen Wade has worked for urban farms and the New York City's Greenmarkets, as well as being a practiced barista and certified master food preserver. Currently living in Sunnyside, Queens, he's involved with organizing New Yorkers around the 2018 Farm Bill and pursuing his master gardeners certificate. Follow Stephen on Instagram.