Longer days, warmer weather -- to the cook, these are secondary pleasures. Spring's fresh bounty brings asparagus and rhubarb, baby artichokes and fiddlehead ferns, shad roe and soft-shell crabs.
Here are recipes that highlight three of the season's many delicious gifts.
In his vibrant vegetarian cookbook "Plenty" (Chronicle Books, $35), Yotam Ottolenghi writes that this traditional asparagus recipe, "is probably my favorite. It is simple and therefore relies on the quality of the asparagus itself more than anything else."
2 bunches medium asparagus (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
2 teaspoons small capers, drained
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1. Gently place eggs in a saucepan of boiling water and simmer for 9 minutes. Remove from pan and immerse in a large bowl of cold water. After a few minutes, take them out of the water and leave to cool completely. Peel eggs and grate on a coarse cheese grater.
2. Bend asparagus spears until the tough bottom ends snap off; discard ends. Place spears in a large pot of boiling water and cook for 3 minutes, or until tender. It may take slightly longer if they are thick.
3. Drain and, while still warm but not hot, divide among 4 serving plates. Drizzle the oil over the asparagus and sprinkle with capers, salt and some pepper. Top with grated egg, staying close to the center of the stalks so that the tips and bases remain visible.
Makes 4 appetizer servings.
PAN-SEARED SALMON WITH FIDDLEHEADS AND DILL SAUCE
For an unusual springtime dish, gastronomersguide.com turns to fiddlehead ferns found, only in season, at farmers markets and specialty grocers.
For pan-seared salmon:
2 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, about 2 inches thick
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 tablespoon canola oil
For the sauteed fiddlehead ferns:
3/4 pound fiddlehead ferns, stems trimmed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
For the dill sauce:
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Dill sprigs, for garnish
1. To prepare the salmon, pat dry with paper towels. Liberally season with salt and pepper. Let stand for few minutes, then spread skin side of each fillet with 1/2 tablespoon butter. Warm oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish and sear skin side for 5 minutes. Turn and sear flesh side until cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. To cook the fiddleheads, warm a large saute pan over medium heat. Add ferns and 3 tablespoons of water. Cover and steam until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Uncover and allow any residual liquid to evaporate. Once pan is dry, add oil and garlic; saute for 2 to 3 minutes.
3. To make dill sauce, combine crème fraîche, lemon juice and dill. Season with salt. To assemble, divide fiddleheads between 2 plates, top with salmon, and drizzle sauce over fish. Garnish with sprigs of dill.
Makes 2 servings.
FUSILLI BUCATI WITH SOFT-SHELL CRABS AND HOT CHILIES
Soft shells (blue crabs that have shed their exoskeletons) are available from spring to late summer. In his book "Molto Batali" (Ecco, $29.99), Mario Batali pairs the crabs with hot chilies and fusilli bucati pasta.
6 live soft-shell crabs
Salt and black pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
6 Italian frying peppers, cored, seeded and julienned
4 red jalapeños, cored, seeded and julienned
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups basic tomato sauce (homemade or jarred marinara)
1 1/2 pounds fusilli bucati or spaghetti
1. Bring 8 quarts of water to boil in a very large pot. Clean the crabs; snip off their faces with a pair of scissors and remove the skirts. Cut each crab in half lengthwise, season with salt and black pepper, and set aside.
2. In a 12- to 14-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking. Add the onion, Italian peppers and jalapeños, and cook until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the crab pieces and cook until the crabs are deep red and firm. Add the white wine and the tomato sauce, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, add 2 tablespoons salt to the boiling water. Cook fusilli for 1 minute less than package instructions recommend. Just before pasta is done, ladle 1/4 cup of cooking water into the pan with the crabs.
4. Drain the pasta in a colander, and add it to the crab mixture. Toss over medium heat for about 30 seconds, until the pasta is nicely coated. Pour onto a heated platter, and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.