March is kind of a tease here in Northern California – warm, t-shirt-y, hopeful days are followed by rainy, boots-and-sweater reminders of winter. Spring doesn’t officially begin until the end of March, but those few sunny days prod some early spring produce out of the ground and into our markets. Here are a few of my March favorites:
Acorn Squash: It’s about the end of the road for the warm and comforting winter squash. These hearty, stick-to-your-bones kind of vegetables make their exit every spring to give way to lighter, crunchier fare. They come back again just in time for fall’s first cold snap. The acorn squash is a sweet variety, like the spaghetti squash. During the darker winter months, acorn squash provides important nutrients to our diet like vitamins A, C and B complex, potassium, dietary fiber, manganese, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, copper and tryptophan. Have someone strong cut through the tough skin, give it a good roast and stuff it with meats, vegetables, nuts and cheese.
Asian Greens: Planted in the sun-warmed summer soil, Asian greens grow during the cooler months and can add an interesting assortment of flavors and aromas to your meals. High in fiber and nutrition, Asian greens provide the same type of health benefits as other leafy green vegetables. Seek out names like Bok Choy, Chinese Kale, Chinese Parsley, Chrysanthemum Greens, Garlic Chives, Komatsuna, Misome, Mizuna, Mustard Greens, Napa Cabbage, and Tatsoi for your next stir fry.
Asparagus: One of the first vegetables to announce the arrival of spring, asparagus is best when extremely fresh. Choose stems that are firm and thin, with dark green or purple closed tips. Asparagus is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties and is a good source of the digestive support nutrient, inulin. Store asparagus in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp towel and use within 2 days of purchase.
Blood Oranges: Adding a beautiful, red pigment to your salads and snacks, blood oranges are both a visual and gastronomical treat. Just like other oranges, blood oranges provide excellent antioxidant protection and immune support and even contain more vitamin C and anthocyanins than their orange counterparts. Anthocyanins are the flavanoids responsible for the red, purple and blue hues appreciated in many, fruits, vegetables and flowers and are most well-known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, protecting many of our body systems.
Cardoons: If it weren’t for my weekly CSA delivery, I would have never discovered cardoons. Cardoons are of Mediterranean origin and are well known in Europe, playing a traditional role in Christmas Eve festivities in Italy, Spain, Sardinia and France. Being thistles, cardoons are most closely related to the artichoke, but the edible stalks look more like celery. Like celery, cardoons are a low-calorie food that still provide good amounts of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Cardoons are best boiled or roasted and enjoyed with dip, and they can also be braised, sautéed, added to soup, or baked with butter and cream.
Cherimoya: Proving the sentiment that you can’t judge a book by its cover, it’s easy to ignore the cherimoya’s awkward shape and lumpy, green and brown skin. However, their creamy, vanilla colored flesh has been described by Mark Twain as “deliciousness itself.” The cherimoya fruit tastes like a combination of mango, vanilla, banana, pineapple and coconut. The nutritional qualities of the cherimoya shouldn’t be ignored, either. High in potassium, dietary fiber and powerful phytonutrients, herbalists in the cherimoya’s native South America have long cultivated the fruit for its medicinal properties.
Parsley: Like many herbs, parsley can grow year-round and, like most herbs, should play an important role in your meals during the cooler months when produce variety is limited. More than just a garnish on your plate, parsley provides volatile oils and flavanoids that are protective of many body systems. Personally, I prefer the Italian, or flat-leaf variety as it is more fragrant and has a less bitter taste than the curly leaf variety.
Walnuts: These nutritional powerhouses are typically harvested in the fall and left to dry for a few weeks. Though they’re found in stores year-round, it’s best to stock up on nuts when they’re fresh in the winter and early spring to ensure that their delicate oils are protected by proper storage throughout the year. If you’re buying shelled walnuts, look for nuts that do not look shriveled or rubbery. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place (the refrigerator) for up to six months, or in the freezer for up to one year. The nutrients in many nuts and seeds are best utilized by our bodies when they’ve been soaked. (You can apply to same technique to walnuts as is mentioned in this article on almonds.)