Embrace vegetables, don’t overpower them
Spring is nature’s fashion week. After winter’s endless parade of root vegetables, it feels as though nature has pressed the big green button, refreshing the new season’s offerings. Being showcased right now is a new look for your fridge, in a variety of greens.
At my local Sunday market in London, on display are big leafy bunches of spinach, pointed sweetheart cabbages, fennel with thrusting green tops and spring’s favorite darling, the slender asparagus.
Even in the village where I grew up, the fields have gone from empty to busy overnight. Workers lob about with big wooden crates of cut leeks, lettuces and a renewed sense of purpose. It is catching: All I want to cook and eat is green, something fresh, light and colorful.
A favorite green supper of mine is this beautiful spring pilau. Buttery rice packed with spiced fennel, onions and garlic cooked slowly until soft and finished with a last-minute addition of still-crisp asparagus and fava beans or peas. A handful of fresh mint and a squeeze of lemon juice is stirred in just before serving to lift and unify all the flavors.
It’s a gentle dish. The key to spring cooking is never to overpower the flavor of the new vegetables. They’ve spent a long time getting to the point where they’re ready. So don’t hijack them with bigger, bolder flavors or spices. A little cumin, green chili and garam masala are all they need to help them sing.
This dish can be eaten by itself, though adding a little yoghurt and mango pickle won’t hurt. But for something a bit more special, some spring lamb cutlets, flash fried with salt, cumin and chili would make wonderful sidekicks.
Spring Vegetable Pilau with Fennel and Asparagus
Use whichever spring vegetables you have available. Green beans and spring cabbage or leeks make for a wonderful pilau, too.
Start to finish: 35 minutes
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
3 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 green finger chilies, very thinly sliced
2 medium bulbs fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 bunches asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
9 ounces fresh or frozen peas or fresh fava beans (outer skins removed)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as mint, dill or cilantro
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Set the rice in a mesh strainer and run under cool water until the water runs clear. Transfer to a bowl, then add enough cool water to cover. Set aside for 20 minutes.
In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Drain the rice, then add to the stock. Return to a simmer, then cook until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Use a mesh strainer to strain the rice, then set aside, covered with a kitchen towel.
In a larger skillet over medium, melt the butter. Add the onions and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until translucent and softened, but not browned. Add the garlic and chilies, then cook for another 2 minutes. Add the fennel, stir to mix, then add a couple tablespoons of water and cover. Cook for 8 minutes, or until soft. Add the asparagus, peas or fava beans, cumin, garam masala and salt. Stir and cover, then cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Stir the herbs and rice into the vegetable mixture; you might need to delicately break up the clumps of rice using your hands. Transfer to a serving dish and serve with wedges of lemon on the side.
Nutrition information per serving: 330 calories; 40 calories from fat (12 percent of total calories); 4.5 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 640 mg sodium; 62 g carbohydrate; 9 g fiber; 11 g sugar; 11 g protein.
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