With spring in high gear, small farmers are bringing their early harvests to local markets all around the country. If you are lucky enough to live near one of these markets, say hello to fresh, local produce at their peak of flavor and nutrition. If you don’t have access to a farmer’s market, ask your neighborhood grocery store if they stock seasonal items from regional producers. Choosing to integrate seasonal foodstuffs into your kitchen has awesome health benefits, while being a local consumer goes a long way toward supporting businesses in your community or region.
Make sure to fill up your shopping basket or reusable tote bag with these five foods this spring, available nearly everywhere in May and into the first weeks of June:
Asparagus is all over the markets this time of year, so take advantage of the bounty while it’s fresh and local in order to reap the greatest benefits from this flavonoid-rich spring vegetable.
Specifically, asparagus contains high amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin that is prized for its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Asparagus is also one of the best sources of veggie-based folic acid that you’ll get all year, a key nutrient for expectant mothers, and is a top source of gut-healthy prebiotic fiber. As for that “I’ve just eaten asparagus” stench in urine, this is due to the presence of asparagine, a unique diuretic compound that can reduce bloating caused by excess salt and water retention.
Whether you’re steaming, roasting, grilling, or sautéing your asparagus, you’ll never get bored when you integrate recipes from The Smitten Kitten Cookbook by Deb Perlman into your dinner rotation.
You’re probably aware that strawberries are chock full of antioxidants, with one of the highest vitamin C contents out there. That’s reason enough to stock up on these sweet, red spring berries, whether you’re buying them by the pint at the farmer’s market or taking a weekend excursion to a pick-your-own berry farm.
But there’s another reason why you should buy strawberries now rather than at the grocery store later in the year: the Environmental Working Group has put strawberries at the top of the “dirty dozen” list for four years in a row. That means that the conventionally-grown strawberries that you get at the stores, and even the industrially-grown ones that are grown with organic pesticides, have high levels of chemical contamination. Even giving them a good wash will not remove the pesticide residues that are present on the surface of the berries. Consider, also, that pesticide use has a significant effect on the health of farm workers, many of whom are Latinos. One recent study estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of all employed Latinos are exposed to toxic contaminants like pesticides in the workplace.
Because of this contamination, your best bet for having access to the freshest and healthiest berries beyond their ephemeral season is to find local farmers who cultivate their berries using good agricultural practices; then, buy lots and lots of the berries to stash in your freezer for the coming months. Make sure you hull the greens before you toss the rinsed and dried strawberries — whole or sliced, whatever your preference — into a freezer-proof bag or storage container. You can use these for baking, topping oatmeal, smoothies… basically anything where raw texture isn’t a concern. They’ll probably last a good six months in the freezer before their quality begins to degrade significantly.
Beets and Their Greens
Beets are a staple at juice shops for a reason. They contain a ruby-red compound called betalain which is responsible for the anti-inflammatory root vegetable’s long list benefits. Eating beets — whether in whole vegetable form or as a juice — is especially beneficial for people who suffer from hypertension, a major risk factor for chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, and atherosclerosis. The roots have been used since ancient times for their medicinal properties, including as an aphrodisiac.
Roasted beets are delicious, but if you’re looking to maximize their nutritional content you’ll want to leave them raw. They can be grated into salads as a sweet and crispy component. If you’re feeling experimental, try making them into an easy probiotic, traditional brew called kvass; the brine becomes a fizzy, fermented elixir while the beets themselves become lightly pickled and can be eaten straight from the jar or frozen and thrown into smoothies.
If you’re buying beets at the farmer’s market, you’re likely going to find them with their greens intact. Don’t toss these! Beet greens are an excellent source of plant-based calcium, among other nutrients, and have almost as much vitamin E as a serving of avocado. Wash them well before using them, because they tend to be pretty sandy. Sauté them as you would any leafy greens.
Like all legumes and pulses, spring green peas are great sources of fiber. They are also a good source of fresh, affordable, plant-based protein. The combination of starch, fiber, and protein content means that you can expect to feel well-satiated if you’re incorporating this low-calorie, high-antioxidant veggie into your diet. Use them however you like in a veggie stir-fry, or pick up some tender herbs and try this beautiful recipe for green pea soup.
But an unexpected reason to enjoy your peas this spring is because they are excellent cover crop for farmers. Legumes and pulses act like “green manure,” safely fixing nitrogen into depleted soils and improving the quality of other crops that are grown in their place. It’s a nerdy reason to like them, but eating produce that farmers rely on for their work is one way to contribute to regenerative and sustainable practices.
Peas are sweet when freshly-picked, but these sugars begin to turn to starch as soon as they are harvested. Use them as soon as you bring them home. If you can’t, the best thing to do is to give them a quick blanch so that they can be stored in the freezer at the peak of their flavor.
Fresh Spring Herbs
Don’t overlook the abundance of herbs at the market. Herbs like oregano and thyme have powerful anti-microbial properties, while sage and mint contain components that support healthy brain function. Parsley contains cancer-fighting flavonoids called apigenins that comprise many traditional Chinese herbs. Looking beyond the general medicinal benefits of spring herbs is the simple fact that herbs make your spring cooking tasty AF.
If you find that you have too many herbs on hand and you’re concerned you won’t be able to use them in time, considering brewing them into a simple and rustic herbal tea. Thyme is used in a traditional Ethiopian beverage. Mint, of course, is used in the classic Moroccan assessment. Greek mountain tea is made up of whatever herb is on hand and is purported to support one of the longest-living communities in the world.