Searching for Spring Produce 🍓
Will walk miles for rhubarb.
What is the appropriate amount of rhubarb to purchase for a household of two? I’m not sure, but every week I push the number higher.
It’s early May, and my produce fixation is just starting to yawn awake from winter hibernation. After six months of root vegetables, the anticipation of new produce is a potent drug. The crowd energy at markets is enthusiastically geeky...borderline horny.
Garlicky wild ramps often get the glory, but rhubarb has my whole heart. Our infatuation is relatively new. I didn’t grow up eating it, maybe because Californians don’t have to bother with stewing pseudo-celery when plump strawberries are available year-round. Sigh. But now I’m an impatient East Coaster, so I start searching the Fort Greene farmers market in April. Somehow my Instagram is already filled with a slow drip of rhubarb dessert photos, and jealousy breeds fixation. Deep down, I know my odds are slim until May, when bouquets of slender pink stalks will suddenly pop up all over. And so the hunt begins.
Searching, failing, daydreaming
I may be stretching the definition of “hobby” here, but searching for the first taste of spring can take up a good deal of time….even if you’re not foraging for morel mushrooms in a top-secret abandoned apple orchard. Being the first shopper at the farmers’ market is a commitment! The early bird gets the ramps.
I’m no early riser, but I do have multiple group texts devoted to tracking down seasonal produce. We send each other tips: A grocery store with a recent white asparagus sighting! A screenshot of a stranger's envy-inducing haul from the Union Square Greenmarket! After a few literally fruitless weeks, I decided to take matters in my own hands and visit Greene Grape, an annoyingly expensive but well stocked specialty grocer in my neighborhood. Of course they had it.
Deciding what to cook
Common, objectively good advice: Go to the grocery store with a plan!
My approach to buying precious produce: Panic! Buy as much as you can financially justify! Figure it out later!
Even though I spend all winter daydreaming about sugar snap peas and stone fruit, I never know what to make first. I’m completely overwhelmed with options, a side effect of spending weeks giddily bookmarking custardy cakes with Mondrian overlays and impeccably-latticed pies, fully aware that I’ll never make them. Why blow my bounty on one dessert? I want every moment to be fruit-filled. Instead, I simmer endless pots of jam to stir into morning yogurt and dollop atop midnight ice cream.
This year, I decided to make a game plan:
Then I largely ignored it. Instead, I made a simple but satisfying rhubarb crisp and an almost inedible rhubarb galette. The recipe was acclaimed, but my butter was too warm and it all leaked out and honestly I think I’ll never make pie dough again. Why undergo so much stress only to lose a stick of butter to a baking sheet?
I promise, I really will make a shrub. Bartender and historian Al Culliton’s recipe has become my favorite way to extend rhubarb season for as long as possible. Shrubs are essentially “drinking vinegars,” perfect for mixing into seltzer or cocktails. Her approach is simple: combine a few sliced stalks with sugar, salt, and some fragrant mint leaves so the fruit macerates into a juicy puddle, chill overnight, then add red wine vinegar and let it sit in the fridge for a few days until the flavors meld into tangy-sweet unity. Al says the strained shrub can hang out in the fridge for six to eight weeks—hopefully, long enough to tide me over until berry season hits. I’ll make a double batch, just in case.
In search of other holy grails:
Rhubarb is delicious, but it’s just one seasonal contender. In hopes of planning out my other spring cooking projects, I asked some produce obsessives about their objects of desire.
“I'd be lying if I said I was looking for asparagus and green garlic. I'm a total fruit fiend, which means that for me, it's rhubarb and strawberries or bust. My problem is that once I've found them, I can never decide what to do with them—they're too precious. This year I have big dreams to make rhubarb danishes with strawberry pastry cream—I've just got to assemble some eaters,” says Sarah Jampel, whose glistening galette inspired my own less-than-stellar take.
“Oh, and I'm also excited about sugar snaps (though somehow it seems like I always manage to get some English peas lumped in there). I usually turn the super sweet young ones into a simple salad with olive oil, tender herbs like mint and dill, and some kind of tangy dairy, like buttermilk, sour cream, or labneh, inspired by this Claire Saffitz recipe.” –Also Sarah Jampel!
“I’m desperate for fiddleheads that I can pickle in a spicy brine with or without ramps to be used on the cutest little toothpick for stoop Bloody Maria’s all year long and remember spring when she’s long gone,”says Uzma Chowdhury, who mixes Zing Zang with mezcal for a low-stress Bloody.
“I am determined to inhale rhubarb, specifically in the form of a rhubarb-studded mochi cake! Or maybe a savory rhubarb and green garlic-buttered toast if I’m feeling extra confident,” says Mehreen Karim, who ended up walking 2.5 hours while fasting for Ramadan (!) to obtain rhubarb for a delightfully green pandan custard cake.
“When I was really little, my grandma’s tiny home in Erie, PA, was flanked by lilac and raspberry bushes. Anytime we’d visit, my siblings and I would spend hours romping in the yard and pricking our fingers as we searched for raspberries fresh off the bush. Ever since, I take solace in strolling farmers markets or lingering too long in grocery stores in search of those little clusters of jewels. Although, I’m happy to skip the finger-pricking,” says Jesse Sparks.
What fruit or vegetable are you holding out hope for? Let me know.
Before you go, here’s my newest go-to spring playlist. Also, some of my recent work:
My Farm’s CSA Has Become a Refuge for Asian Americans (Bon Appetit). Farmer Kristyn Leach on how her CSA email list has become a support group in the wake of Asian hate. Read this, then if you’re able, donate to a local non-profit supporting the AAPI community.
5 Gardening Books to Deepen Your Plant Knowledge (Architectural Digest). Expert-sourced recommendations to read up on soil health, tomatoes, and a lot more.
The French Carrot Salad We’ll Be Making All Summer Long (Clean Plates). A brief ode to an “extremely French” carrot salad recipe from Rebekkah Peppler’s charming new cookbook À Table.