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Lighten Up

Enliven the remains of your winter storage with some springtime freshness.

The occasional errant snowflake notwithstanding, the signs of spring are all around. Children stomp in puddles and dig for worms; fashionistas swap out their chunky knits for airy florals. Crocuses have emerged in flowerbeds along every sidewalk, and the tulips are not far behind.

Like these early blooms, green shoots from the garlic I planted last fall are just starting to poke through the ground. It is time to turn the soil in the other beds, work in whatever compost I can harvest, and plot out my modest herb-and-pepper garden. Just the planning is enough to bring summer to my mind, and growing your own food—be it a single basil plant on your windowsill or a veritable salad bar in your backyard—takes local and seasonal eating to a new level.

Yet while I dream about the summer harvest, my larder is still stocked with the dregs of winter. It will be two months before those little garlic shoots grow and curl into tender scapes ready for cutting, and fiddlehead ferns and asparagus have not yet arrived on New England farms.

As the weather warms up, many people have a natural craving for lighter foods. While the fall is the time to store up for the lean months and winter is the season of rich comfort dishes, springtime is a period of cleansing and renewal. Crunchy, tart, sharp, bright, grassy, sour: these are the tastes we associate with spring.

But keeping the menu refreshing when my available produce consists primarily of storage vegetables—cabbage and carrots, beets and potatoes—is a challenge, albeit a necessary one. For no matter how glorious cheese may be, if I layer my root vegetables into another gratin before the fall, I think I may cry.

A few simple tricks can help keep things tasting light. Citrus fruits, either cut up and mix with other ingredients or juiced for a dressing, brighten up almost any dish. Use cheese as an accent, opting for the enlivening notes of a tangy goat cheese or briny feta. Swap out other animal proteins for beans, lentils or tofu. Keep greens raw, providing a crunchy counterpoint to texture of cooked winter holdovers. For the right balance of mild and sharp, snatch up leeks, scallions and radishes when they appear; until you can find them, slice the mildest onions you have and soak in cold water for 20-30 minutes to temper their bite.

Combining a few of these techniques can transform the most wintry of winter vegetables. Roasted butternut squash cubes and plain brown lentils, served cold and brightened with some lemon juice, make for a filling lunch. Toss shredded cabbage and thinly sliced (and soaked) red onions with rice wine vinegar, a little sesame oil and just a bit of sugar to create a satisfyingly fresh coleslaw without the heaviness of mayonnaise.

My recent favorite is a salad that gains substance from our nearly endless supply of beets, borrows from our last few Florida oranges, and puts it all over a bed of tender baby greens—a sure sign of spring.

Spinach Salad with Roasted Root Vegetables

Serves 2-3 as a light lunch or 4-6 as an appetizer
Time: 1 hour, mostly unattended

  • 1 lb beets (about 3 large)
  • 1 lb carrots, or a mix of carrots and parsnips (about 6 large)
  • up to ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cups baby spinach
  • 4 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced
  • 4 oz soft goat cheese, gently crumbled
  • 2 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 tsp umeboshi (plum) vinegar
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup toasted walnut pieces, optional
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel root vegetables and dice into ½-inch cubes, keeping beets separate from carrots and/or parsnips. Toss beets with 1-2 teaspoons olive oil and arrange in a single layer on one side of a very large roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. Toss carrots and/or parsnips with another 1-2 teaspoons oil and arrange in a single layer on other side of pan. (Alternatively, you may roast the beets and carrots separately in two smaller pans.)

  2. Roast root vegetables for about 45 minutes, until tender and browned on the edges. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Using a slotted spoon, transfer roasted vegetables to a bowl, allowing any excess oil to drain back into roasting pan.

  3. Mix together orange juice and umeboshi vinegar. Whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Taste, and whisk in up to one more tablespoon oil if you find the dressing too sharp or too sour. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper, if desired.

  4. To serve, toss spinach leaves with scallions and divide among plates. Distribute roasted vegetables evenly over greens. Drizzle dressing evenly over salads and top with crumbled cheese. Garnish with toasted walnuts.

To learn more about growing food at home or in a communal garden, consider attending Bountiful Brookline’s this weekend.

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