Tastebuds in Bloom
Three chefs share their favorite spring ingredient
When it comes to cooking, spring can taste like a fresh breath of air on the tongue. Vegetables leap up from the ground, eager to be eaten. One can finally get seafood that’s alive and squirming rather than frozen. Thomas Salamunovich, owner and culinary director at Larkspur in Vail, said when the forgotten flavors of spring return for the season, it can feel like “seeing an old friend,” one you can’t wait to chop up and toss in a salad or sauté lightly so as not to diminish any of their crispy, crunchy, scrumptious appeal.
One of Salamunovich’s favorite foods for spring are ramps, also known as a spring onion or wild leek. This early-season vegetable has a stronger garlicky-flavor compared to other onions, and when combined with asparagus and peas, “you’ll feel like you’re taking a bite right out of the garden,” he said.
Cooking in the spring isn’t about filling your mouth full of flavor. It’s about embracing the more subtle and tender aspects of what you’re eating.
“This is not the season for cooking with very rich, deep aromas,” Salamunovich said. “It’s about letting the nuances of these vegetables shine.”
Another spring pick of Salamunovich’s are fiddleheads, which sprout up early and are cut from the tips of ferns. Known for their bright green color, fiddleheads have a fun curlicue swirl that look great on a plate next to the main dish. Salamunovich suggests blanching the fiddleheads for about 30 seconds and then immediately sautéing them with olive oil and spring garlic. Salamunovich says for many of these early-season veggies, you really do need to get them while they’re green, before they’re gone too soon.
David Walford, executive chef at Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek, looks forward to spring because he has a chance to enjoy in-season soft shell crab. Soft shell crab can be found frozen year-round, but springtime is when one should seek out the fresh kind of this delicious crustacean.
Walford says when preparing soft shell crabs, keep it simple, like coating them with a little flour and sautéing them in butter.
“An unknown way is to dust them with potato flour and deep fry them for barely a minute at 350 degrees,” Walford says. “They’re very good that way.”
For home chefs who don’t own a deep fryer, pan frying works as well. Walford says soft shell crabs pair well with anything tart or acidic, like lemon butter or a vinaigrette. Served warm atop a salad combines vivacious vegetables with something that was still alive mere hours ago.
“A soft shell crab, when it comes to you, it’s still moving around,” Walford says. “Prepare it in the next hour or two. Fry them or sauté them, but don’t boil them, don’t stew them. Don’t let them get lost in (the preparation).”
Colorado may not be near the Gulf Coast or Chesapeake Bay, where soft shell crabs call home, but due to air travel Walford said we’re still able to taste the catch of the day.
“With the right planning, we can have the freshest fish as everyone else right here in Colorado,” Walford says. “You don’t have to be in Maine to get great lobster. We get fresh lobster flown here three times a week.”
A tart start to spring
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Nick Haley has fond memories of making rhubarb pie with his grandmother. Now executive chef and co-owner of Zino Ristorante in Edwards, Haley still enjoys his first forkful of rhubarb every spring that tastes both new and nostalgic. The vibrant, red rhubarb plant is a signature delight of the season, whose tart taste adds an invigorating pop of flavor to both desserts and entrees. Haley said the only secret to using rhubarb is to balance its sourness with something sweet, like strawberries or even our own Palisade peaches. Sometimes, a classic family recipe stays that way for a reason.
“I don’t mess with (rhubarb pie),” Haley said. “I love how I had it. I’m a creature of habit. (For the pie), always use butter in your flour. I always add a little bit of starch in my pie mixture so that it’s not a liquid mess when you’re done. Enjoy it while it’s warm.”
When picking out the perfect rhubarb stalk, look for bright pink stems. As with any spring vegetable, Haley said the best part is being able to taste the season itself.
“Everything is starting to come alive again,” Haley says. “You have the opportunity to bring a lot of things back into the palate.” – Rosanna Turner