How to prepare spring produce offered at Berkeley Farmers’ Markets

Photo of asparagus bundles being sold at a market
Alexander Christiano/Staff

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Shopping locally and seasonally may be all of the rages these days, but how do you know what products to buy, how to prepare them and what goes well with them? I hope to answer these questions by taking you through my trip to the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday you can venture over to one of three locations in Berkeley to shop from an assortment of produce stands, specialty product shops and pop-up restaurants. 

As I perused what looked good that day, I asked various produce stands what they recommended, especially anything ephemeral and only available for a brief time period. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering which produce tastes best during the spring season, this guide is here to help! Keep reading for a detailed look at the market’s spring offerings and some basic suggestions on preparation and handling to help demystify spring produce. 

Asparagus

One of the most popular spring vegetables, asparagus is a must-try for the spring season. A lot of the asparagus you find at the grocery store is quite thin, which can work great for certain preparations such as stir fry, but farmers market varieties typically have a much thicker stalk. Also, asparagus can be green, white or purple, but green is most common in the United States. 

The secret to asparagus? Make sure to peel the tough outer layer (especially on thicker stalks) because they won’t soften while cooking. You also should snap off any tougher bottom ends, usually white in color. Just find the point at which the asparagus naturally starts to bend and apply some pressure, making sure to not break off too much of the edible portion. Most grocery stores do this for you, but some asparagus at the farmers market will require it.

Peeled asparagus is tender and easier to eat than unpeeled. I suspect some people’s distaste for the vegetable comes from eating unpeeled asparagus, which results in an unpleasant chew. Asparagus is tremendously versatile yet flavorful on its own. Thicker stalks can be grilled or broiled with olive oil, salt and pepper, then served with a hollandaise sauce or over fresh herb ricotta cheese. You could dress them up with some punchy aromatics — fresh chili, garlic and anchovies — or roast them for an irresistible appetizer. 

Many cooking techniques work with asparagus, including blanching, boiling, sauteeing and steaming. Just make sure to not overcook them; there should still be a bit of bite to the stem when served. Asparagus can even be served raw in salads when thinly sliced!

Fava beans

Dried fava beans are available year-round and easy to prepare — they just require soaking and simmering. On the other hand, fresh fava beans are a brighter green and have a bit more of a vibrant flavor to them. When you buy them at the market, they will come in sizable green pods, very similar in appearance to edamame.

To prepare, split open the pods and collect the fava beans inside. Each bean is wrapped in a thin skin, which will require removal later. Once all of your beans are shucked, the blanching process can begin. Here, you have two options. You can blanch the beans for about a minute, leaving them still slightly raw, to be cooked in the future; or, you can blanch the beans for three to five minutes, leaving them fully cooked and creamy on the inside. Either way, make sure to shock them in an ice bath after removal from the boiling water until the beans are thoroughly chilled. This preserves their vibrant green color. Lastly, just make sure to peel off the thin white skin surrounding the bean. It is technically edible if the beans are fully cooked, but I highly recommend removing it for textural purposes. 

Cooked fava beans are great served with olive oil, salt and fresh lemon juice. They can be added to lentil or bean stews, pureed like hummus with roasted garlic and caramelized shallots or added to a thinly shaved fennel (also available in spring!) salad with orange slices, olive oil, Parmesan and mint. 

Green garlic

This pick isn’t as well known as asparagus, but I was told by Riverdog Farm that it comes into season for the briefest period of time compared to the rest of the products they offer in spring. Green garlic is the young version of the white garlic bulbs that we all recognize with familiarity at the grocery store. The premature version looks a lot like green onions (and tastes similar too) but with a more garlicky essence. 

If I were to cook green garlic, it would primarily be sautéing the white stems as the base for a stir fry, soup or any other dish that uses a vegetable base. However, I’ll mostly be eating these raw to savor their strong yet not overpowering flavor. I would thinly slice the green and white stems to use as a garnish in pasta or noodles, as an addition to a tofu salad or in egg fried rice. Another idea offered by an employee of Riverdog: Thinly slice and add olive oil and lemon juice to make a wonderful dressing. In fact, I would certainly add green garlic dressing to roasted asparagus or freshly cooked fava beans!

This brings me to the beauty of seasonal cooking. What grows together goes together! All of these vegetables can be used together in a stir fry, pasta primavera or spring garden salad. The possibilities are endless!

Contact Alexander Christiano at [email protected].