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Peas and asparagus
Spain is a carnivorous nation, and a main course often revolves around a hunk of pork or a stack of clams, with the only green thing on the plate being a sprinkling of parsley. But, times are changing and some top chefs are reworking traditional presentations by using meat or seafood as a garnish for vegetables rather than the other way around—think of a plate of blanched artichokes and crunchy green beans with the ham relegated to an ingredient in the sauce. Vegetables may not be the new meat quite yet, but shoppers are slowly demanding greater variety and quality.
As you browse the April markets, go light on the fauna and heavy on the flora, particularly the tender spring asparagus, baby spinach and young kale now in season. The hardcore gastro nerds can keep an eye out for newly resurrected heirloom varieties in the Boqueria. Now highly coveted, Montserrat and Raf tomatoes, Copo de Nieve potatoes or sweet and tangy Cristal peppers were all near extinction a couple of decades ago. The pool of available varieties has shrunk so dramatically with mechanical reproduction that various local collectives are recuperating ancient seed varieties and putting them in germ plasm banks for posterity.
Spain’s most progressive chefs have gone beyond simply sourcing organic boutique spuds: now it’s about combining homegrown harvests with high-tech techniques. For instance, Andoni Luis Aduriz, at Mugaritz near San Sebastián, experiments with edible grasses, and produces oddities such as bubbles made with pink beetroot juice.
ASPARAGUS AND SHALLOTS
April is a bit of an in-between month in terms of seasons, but one bright break in the harvesting lull is fresh green asparagus. Look for perky stalks with tightly closed tips. Steam lightly and dip in extra virgin olive oil or a little melted butter (don’t worry, asparagus consists mainly of water and fibre, so the extra calories shouldn’t matter too much). Alternatively, dribble with oil, sprinkle with rock salt and grill until they start to blacken. They're full of vitamin C and are a good diuretic. This is also the month to look for fresh white asparagus—a world away from the droopy canned variety, which is most people’s experience of these pale spears.
Although we're used to seeing the allium family (onion, garlic, etc.) all year round in their ‘dried’ stored state, the fresh crops are harvested around now. Shallots (chalotas/chalotes/escalonias and many more variations) are still a fairly rare sight in the markets here, and fresh ones are rarer still, but look for them at specialist market stalls. Like other alliums, shallots have long been thought to have healing properties, helping combat poor appetite and digestion as well as respiratory infections. Dropping shallot bulbs into boiling water for 20 seconds will make them easier to peel and a little less pungent. If you’re cooking with shallots, don’t subject them to too high a heat or, like garlic, they'll turn bitter. They can also be eaten raw and, when chopped very finely, they make a wonderful base for a vinaigrette. --KF
With the arrival of spring comes the first of the ‘earlies’ or new potatoes, beautiful globes of tender skinned, waxy-fleshed tubers that taste so vital at this time of year. Compared to Northern Europe, and particularly Britain, where people eat more potatoes than even the Irish, Spain lags behind in celebrating this seasonal treat, but they are out there. Look out for egg-shaped monalisa, palogan and jaerla, and cachelos from Galicia, which has its own D.O. Extra-early producers in Seville or Cordoba are also enjoying a boom in new breeds where frost is less of an issue.
Since they are the first of the season, one of their distinctive qualities is the texture: firm, smooth and buttery with a delicate taste that very easily picks up on the flavours in other dishes. Many fans insist that they cannot be improved upon from simple boiling and a dab of butter. But like any other vegetable, arguably more so than any other vegetable, their uses are virtually endless.
Cooked slowly in a pan with nothing but butter, a splash of stock and a spoonful of honey is a traditionally Danish approach (usually for Christmas) but it makes a fiendishly addictive side to go with the season’s spring lamb. Elizabeth David swore by pureeing them with stock and fresh, wild herbs like sorrel, tarragon and chervil to make a light and delicious summer soup. They come into their own Catalan-style sliced thinly, blanched and then layered with onions, tomatoes, garlic and parsley, drizzled with olive oil and topped with a whole dorada before baking the lot in the oven. --TS
There are peas, and then there are ‘la perla verda’ from the legendary pea-growing Mecca that is El Maresme. And by golly, when they are in season, what a season it is; up there with Ascot, the Monaco Grand Prix and an August weekend in the Hamptons. A friend of mine once handed back a small punnet of the green gold at the market in Sant Cugat when they tried to charge her €12 for them, turning peas into one of the most hotly discussed topics of the moment.
The argument is that Maresme peas are greener, sweeter, smoother, more delicate and generally more fabulous than any other pea. Certainly they are revered like no other springtime vegetable among the culinary elite. However, when I turn to my trusty companion, Seasonal Food by Paul Waddington, his view is a little more down to earth.
“Peas are one of the very few food items whose frozen version can be better than the fresh. The sugars in peas start converting to starch as soon as they are picked, so quality diminishes fast. Freezing, which for commercially grown peas is done within two and a half hours of picking, stops this process dead in its tracks.”
Which is not to say that peas straight from the pod aren’t wonderful things worthy of celebration, because they are. But it puts it into perspective. Bright green, bursting with flavour, and popping with juice, peas like these need to be the star of the show, but when they cost the same as half-a-dozen oysters, my heart says savour it raw, perhaps mixed into a salad or thrown into a risotto toward the end of cooking.
Tip: The annual pea festival, in Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, will be held this month from April 8th to 11th, 2010. Throughout the month, restaurants will offer traditional pea-centric dishes. More info at www.santandreudellavaneres.cat.