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In Season for April
Come April, we are ready to put the heavy coats and heavy foods away for the winter, and welcome warm weather and a fresh crop of delicious spring fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, Mother Nature often has different plans. If you are stuck in the house listening to the pitter patter of rain, try some light, but warming spring fare that will be sure to kick the winter blues.
In certain respects, the artichoke might be regarded as the vegetable equivalent of lobster. It's somewhat labor-intensive eating, but well worth the effort. The artichoke can be served whole or trimmed down to the heart, which, like the lobster's tail, is often considered the tastiest morsel. Artichokes are harvested year round. The crop peaks in the spring--March through May--and again, to a lesser extent, in October.
Trivia:An artichoke is Actually a thistle and a member of the sunflower family. The artichoke itself is a flower bud or immature flower head. The tender bases of the petals and the fleshy heart to which the petals are connected are the edible portions.|Artichokes originated in Sicily and were brought by the French to Louisiana and by Spaniards to California.|Always considered a delicacy, artichokes were popularized by Catherine d'Medici who was married at age 14 to Henry II of France. She was regarded with disdain due to her notorious artichoke appetite in an era when artichokes were a famed aphrodisiac.
Tips:Dips for artichokes include Hollandaise sauce, plain yogurt blended with Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, light mayonnaise or mayonnaise blended with lemon juice.|For easy stuffed artichokes, spread the leaves (after cooked and cooled). Remove center leaves and scoop out choke. Fill with your favorite chicken or seafood salad.
To keep asparagus fresh, cut 1/2 inch off of the base of the stalk and stand the asparagus upright in an inch of warm water (do not let the tips soak in water!). This will also revive asparagus that looks wilted and limp.For an elegant appetizer or spring salad, steam asparagus, sprinkle with red wine or Balsamic vinegar and refrigerate. When ready to serve, top with chopped toasted almonds.
Trivia:Today's asparagus has been bred from wild plants that were native to western and central Asia and central Europe. Asparagus has always been considered a luxury vegetable, highly prized in ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece. In Europe, its popularity flourished under the reign of Louis XIV of France, a devotee who encouraged its production.
Tips:To keep asparagus fresh, cut 1/2 inch off of the base of the stalk and stand the asparagus upright in an inch of warm water (do not let the tips soak in water!). This will also revive asparagus that looks wilted and limp.|For an elegant appetizer or spring salad, steam asparagus, sprinkle with red wine or Balsamic vinegar and refrigerate. When ready to serve, top with chopped toasted almonds.
Avocados are commonly thought of as vegetables, but they are actually fruits. These delicious creamy fruits are known to be high in fat, however, keep in mind that it is a healthful fat.
Trivia:Avocados date back to 8,000 B.C., and are native to Mexico and Central America. Until recent years, the avocado had a well-entrenched reputation for inducing sexual prowess and wasn't purchased or consumed by any person wishing to protect their image from slanderous assault. Growers had to sponsor a public relations campaign to dispel the ill-founded reputation before avocados became popular. Avocados must reach full maturity before they are picked, but they will not soften on the tree. The tree is actually used as a warehouse; the fruit can be kept on the tree for many months after reaching maturity.
Tips:To ripen an avocado, place it in a sealed plastic bag with a ripe banana at room temperature. Another method is to bury the avocado completely in a jar of flour. Do not refrigerate avocados until they are ripe.
Cabbage is round in shape with layers of superimposed leaves with the inner leaves often lighter in color than the outer leaves because they are protected from the sunlight. They belong to the Cruciferae family of vegetables along with kale, broccoli, collards and Brussels sprouts.
Trivia:Cabbages were among the first plants to be cultivated. Northern Europe was the starting point for wild cabbage, originally loose leafed like collards.|When introduced to the Mediterranean, Egyptians worshipped cabbage heads as gods, enthroned on elaborate alters.|Cabbage was among the first European plants brought by colonists to the New World where it thrived.
Cauliflower lacks the green chlorophyll found in other members of the cruciferous family of vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and kale, because the leaves of the plant shield the florets from the sun as they grow. It has a compact head (called a "curd"), usually about six inches in diameter that is composed of undeveloped flower buds. The flowers are attached to a central stalk.
Trivia:Cauliflower is a member of the cabbage group in the mustard family of plants. |Mark Twain described cauliflower as "cabbage with a college education."
Tips:If boiling cauliflower, add a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice to the water to maintain white color.
Cucumbers are a refreshing snack that can be used in a variety of ways. They provide a crisp crunch on a salad or sandwich, and they are delicious dipped in hummus. When choosing a cucumber, find one that is evenly colored with dark skin. If the cucumber is waxed, be sure to remove the skin with a potato peeler before slicing it. Un waxed cucumber can be eaten with or without the skin depending on personal preference. The seeds are also edible, although many people like to remove them.
Trivia:The cucumber is an immigrant from southern Asia, coming in a fantastic assortment of sizes, colors and shapes.
Super nutritious, with a clean flavor that is tart, yet sweet, pink grapefruits make a great snack. They are also excellent paired with many varieties of fish, and are great for added zing in salads.The three major types of grapefruit include white, pink/red and Star Ruby/Rio Red. Each variety has it's own unique flavor nuances, but they all have a clean refreshing, sweet-tart flavor. Grapefruits are traditionally halved, then eaten with a spoon, but they can also be peeled or sliced and eaten like an orange. Grapefruits are excellent paired with many varieties of fish, and are great for added zing in salads.
Trivia:The principal ancestor of this subtropical evergreen was called pomelo, brought by a captain Shaddock to Barbados from the Malay Archipelago. The pomelo fruit, borne in clusters that gave rise to the name grapefruit, was also called shaddock, and is quite different from the grapefruit we know today. | In the mid-1700's, grapefruit was called, "Forbidden Fruit." |The West Indies were the point of origin for grapefruit, probably as a cross between the pomelo and an orange. It came to Florida in 1840 where a seedless fruit was found fifty years later and propagated to give us the Marsh Seedless variety.
Tips:Grapefruit keeps at room temperature for at least a week. For longer storage, refrigerate in a plastic bag or in the covered vegetable crisper.
Choose the small-leaved specimens for tenderness and mild flavor, especially if the greens are to be eaten raw. Kale stems are edible, so check to be sure that this part of the plant is plump and moist, not withered or collapsed. Kale can be substituted for spinach (with some adjustments in cooking time) in just about any recipe you like. Try it in soups, pasta sauces, stir-fries, omelettes, or on its own (sauteed with garlic) as a delicious side dish.
For the sweetest, fullest flavor, choose plump, fragrant kiwi fruit that yield to gentle pressure, like ripe peaches. Unripe fruit has a hard core and a tart, astringent taste. If only firm kiwis are available, ripen them for a few days before eating them. Reject shriveled or mushy fruits, or those with bruises or wet spots.
These delightfully juicy mandarins are easy to peel and bursting with flavor. Toss some segments into a green salad with sweet onions, toasted almonds and feta cheese for a delicious treat.
Fresh mushrooms... Elegant, enigmatic, alluring, adaptable... anything but ordinary. The distinctive earthy flavor of fresh mushrooms partners perfectly with a multitude of other foods and flavors.
Tips:To clean mushrooms, wipe them with a damp cloth or soft vegetable brush. Because of their porous nature, mushrooms should not be washed in water, as they will absorb water like a sponge, losing nutrients, flavor and changing texture.
This exquisite orange originated in Sicily and is widely available in Italy. In the United States is can be found from December through April. It has a deep maroon colored interior, earthy papaya fragrance, and a rich tart plum flavor, with wild strawberry overtones. It is easy to peel with few seeds.
Despite its tough bristly appearance, fresh pineapple is very easy to prepare, (and well worth the work!). It is a similar process to cutting a melon into chunks or slices. Simply cut the lengthwise into quarters, then cut the quarters into slices. To prepare for fruit salad, cut skin off of the slices, then cut the fruit into smaller chunks.
Radishes are root vegetables with a distinctive flavor that range from the juicy crispness of the familiar red globe radish to the sharp bite of the turnip-shaped black radish. Radishes are usually eaten raw; however, they can be added to cooked dishes such as soups, or pickled, or heated and served as a whole vegetable. As with many other root vegetables, their green tops are edible and lend a peppery taste to salads.
Rhubarb, which looks like a pink celery stalk, is botanically a vegetable, but it is used as a fruit, largely in pies and sauces. Field-grown rhubarb appears on the market from April through June or July. Rhubarb is sold loose and in 1-pound bags, like celery. Choose well-colored, good-sized, straight, firm crisp stalks. Avoid stalks that are limp. If the leaves are attached, they should look fresh and crisp; small leaves usually indicate younger, more tender stalks. Never eat the leaves, they are poisonous.
Although it will not produce the magical effects that Popeye enjoyed, spinach is most definitely good for you. It is exceptionally rich in carotenoids, including beta-carotene and lutein, and also contains quercetin, a phytochemical with antioxidant properties. Spinach is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly folate (folic acid), vitamin K, magnesium, and manganese; it also contains more protein than most vegetables.
Not only are strawberries a delicious treat, they are incredibly good for you too. The deep red color of these berries comes from a high content of anthocyanins, a potent antioxidant that has repeatedly been shown to help protect cell structures in the body.
Trivia:Ancestors of the strawberry were discovered in the 18th Century by French explorers in Chile. The plump, red berries were cultivated by the Indians in South America. The explorers brought several plants back to France, where the berry was crossed with a wild meadow strawberry that previously had been discovered in Virginia. The resulting berry was a forerunner of our modern strawberry. (Source: California Strawberry Advisory Board)
Unlike many greens, the stalks of Swiss chard are completely edible; in fact, in European countries they are considered the best part of the plant. Unless the chard is young, though, the stalks should be separated from the leaves and given a little extra cooking time. Whenever possible, use the cooking liquid from chard in a sauce or add it to a soup; a significant percentage of the nutrient content of greens is released into the liquid as they cook.