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Reaping the Spring Harvest

Healthy Delights from Nature’s Bounty

By Mary Abitanto | With photos by the author

As I take my walks on winter mornings, I am amazed to see the early signs of spring. The daffodils and crocuses start to peek through the hard, cold ground and, despite the frigid temperatures, are determined to break through. I love persistence, and it’s a good life lesson.

I walk past the bare apple trees and barren garden on my property knowing that in the spring the trees will blossom, and soon shiny red apples will emerge, and my vegetable garden will be bursting with life. Soon the snow will melt and yield to running waters and the flowers will be in full bloom. Everything that is gray and dull will soon be lively and colorful. I can hear (and see) the birds chirping and flying in erratic patterns searching for food, and the honeybees that have hunkered down for winter are becoming active in their beehives in my large maple tree.

Spring is such a beautiful time a year. It’s a fresh start to renew our commitment to eat more healthfully and to revitalize our diets with the abundance of fresh, vibrant, and delicious produce making its way to our local markets, farmers markets, and farm stands.

The spring harvest vegetables that start to make an appearance in April through May are leeks, arugula, kale, spinach, asparagus, radishes, and fresh herbs like dill, parsley, and cilantro. By May, we see strawberries, cabbage, lettuce, turnips, and endive. By June, broccoli, carrots, cherries, basil, snow peas, sugar snap peas, onions, peppers, and more will be in abundance. Refer to the New Jersey Seasonality Chart at findjerseyfresh.com/availability for a complete harvest schedule.

According to the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), an integral component of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, increasing the nutritional profile of our foods can be as simple as eating seasonally. The reasoning behind this theory, meaning eating foods that are in season and at their peak flavor, is that often when food is harvested, it must then travel a far distance. In doing so, the nutrients we derive from fruits, berries, and vegetables will deteriorate over time. Elements like temperature changes and exposure to air and light will further impact the nutritional profile of our produce.

Area nutritionist Samara Kraft, MS, RDN, CDCES says that to increase the nutritional profile of our foods, “It is best to choose locally grown, fresh produce, which has the shortest transit time from the ground to the table, preserving most of the nutrients. You can also freeze produce to use at a later time. Alternatively, many frozen vegetables are flash frozen, which consists of blanching soon after being picked and then frozen immediately to retain nutrient composition at the ripest point.”

Kraft says that “eating a balanced, well-rounded diet that is abundant in fruit and vegetables provides the body with nutrients that lead to good health. Produce contains many vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals.” For more about Kraft, visit alphacise.com.

Eating seasonally is a healthy choice. As a recipe curator, I often develop my recipes based solely on what is available and in season. In spring, I make pea-mascarpone ravioli, Asian-inspired meals with crispy tofu and sautéed sugar snap peas, and roasted cabbage. In summer, we turn to our garden for inspiration and make pesto with the herbs; and roasted eggplant, baba ghanoush, and eggplant parmigiana with the eggplant. In fall, pumpkin is so versatile — I use it in soups, cakes, pies, bread, and to make pumpkin cookies for my pups. I imagine you get the idea of eating (and cooking) seasonally. With that said, frozen fruits and vegetables are a healthy alternative to fresh and are always readily accessible.

To celebrate the spring harvest, I have developed a delicious Potato-Crusted Asparagus, Carrot, and Leek Quiche; Creamy Pea Pesto with Risotto; and Balsamic Glazed Roasted Cabbage for you and your family to make alongside a Summer Sunrise Mimosa, inspired by the Jersey Shore summer sunrise.

In my latest cookbook, NOURISH: Celebrating Nature’s Harvest and a Healthy Lifestyle, coming soon, I encourage you to turn to nature’s harvest to inspire your recipes and teach your palate to eat more healthfully. Eating healthy will give you more sustainable energy to do the things you love. I also give a special nod to gluten-free recipes. My cookbooks are available on Amazon.com. Follow me on Instagram @marioochcooks, where I share daily stories of cooking in my kitchen.

Potato-Crusted Asparagus, Carrot, and Leek Quiche

Serves 8-10

Quiche Ingredients:

1 ½ leeks, thinly sliced widthwise, about 1 ½ cups
8-10 asparagus spears, about ½ cup chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into angled slices
8 large eggs
1 ¼ cups whole milk
4 ounces low-fat feta crumbles (or ½ cup shredded Gruyère cheese)
1 (5-ounce) package Chevre (goat) cheese
1 tablespoon light sour cream
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
¾ teaspoon sea salt
High-speed blender
10 in. enamel coated cast iron skillet
Small pot

Topping: 2 tablespoons of chopped chives
Garnish: Cooked asparagus spears and carrot slices
Top each slice with sour cream or crème fraiche

Potato Pancake Ingredients (for the base of the quiche):

2 medium Russet potatoes, scrubbed and grated, about 2 cups
1 small, sweet onion, grated
1 large egg
Cheesecloth (recommended)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Onion powder to taste
10 in. nonstick frying pan
Large dinner plate
Grater

These two recipes were developed for those living a gluten-free lifestyle. I know finding a quiche that is gluten-free (unless it’s crustless) is hard to come by. This quiche is very light, tangy (from the goat cheese and sour cream), custardy, fluffy, and flavorful. Serving this at your next brunch is a great idea as it can be pulled together for guests relatively easy.

With that said, feel free to pair this quiche filling with a pie crust of your choice. In that case, be sure to blind bake, a fancy term for prebake or parbake, the crust. In doing so, you must add parchment paper over the crust, then pie weights, dry rice, or lentils to maintain the structure of the crust. Bake at about 375 degrees for roughly 20 minutes or longer.

The biggest challenge you’ll face with any crust is that the outer edges may start to burn. Here is a great solution: Place a piece of foil over the entire quiche (or pie) and cut out the inside so that the center is exposed but the outer edges of the crust are completely covered. Use this as a pie shield in the event the quiche (or pie) crust starts to brown after the first 25 minutes of baking.

Note: If you are using a regular pie crust, don’t forget to chill the dough in the fridge for 2 hours or in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Add a baking sheet to middle rack. You will cook the quiche at a lower temperature.

Prepare the Potato Pancake:

Finely grate the potatoes along with 1 small onion. Add the grated potato and onion to a cheesecloth and firmly squeeze out all the moisture. Keep squeezing until there is no more liquid being released. In a large bowl, add the shredded potato and onion along with 1 premixed egg, salt, pepper, and onion powder for flavor. Mix all the ingredients with a fork.

In a 10 in. nonstick frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil. Once the pan is hot, add the potato-onion mixture and press down with a spatula to create a large pancake, filling the entire bottom of pan. Heat on medium until the bottom is browned and crispy. Then using oven mitts, top with a dinner plate, and gently flip the potato pancake onto the plate. You may also have success just flipping the pancake with a sturdy spatula.

Add 2 more tablespoons of oil to the pan and allow it to heat up. Then carefully slide the pancake onto the frying pan, and heat on the other side until crispy. You want the pancake to be crispy, so if you press it with a spatula and it’s still wet, continue to cook it.

Prepare the Vegetables:

In the meantime, soak the leeks in a bowl of water for 5-10 minutes, rinse, and repeat until they no longer have any dirt. Leeks tend to hold a fair amount of dirt.

Steam or boil 8-10 asparagus spears just until bright green. Cut them into pieces, you’ll need about ½ cup. Reserve some for garnish. In a small pot cook the precut carrots by boiling for a few minutes, just until fork tender, and drain both on a paper towel-lined plate. Season with salt.

Add the drained leeks to the cast iron skillet with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Heat until golden, about 10 minutes. Then transfer to a plate.

Prepare the Quiche Filling:

Using a high-speed blender to blend all the ingredients creates a very smooth custard-like texture. You may omit the feta cheese and use Gruyère instead, but do not add the Gruyère to the blender, set it aside.

In a large bowl, add the eggs, milk, half the feta crumbles (reserve the rest), goat cheese, sour cream, cornstarch, and salt, and and mix with a fork. Then transfer the mixture to the blender and blend until smooth.

Set the mixture aside.

Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees to cook the quiche.

Once the pancake is lightly browned and crispy, add some olive oil to the cast iron skillet — all around the sides and bottom. Then slide the crispy potato pancake onto the skillet. If it breaks do not worry, no one will know! Top with the browned leeks, the reserved feta crumbles, and asparagus. Then pour the quiche mixture over the top so it nestles into all the ingredients. Add the asparagus and carrots artfully to the top of the quiche. Add the chopped chives.

Note: If you are adding the Gruyere cheese in lieu of the feta crumbles, add the Gruyere on top of the potato pancake, then add the leeks and asparagus and top along with the egg mixture. I find if you blend the cheese into the egg mixture the Gruyere will float to the top, so to avoid that from happening add it to the pancake layer. You can also alternate cheese, onions, asparagus, and more cheese, creating layers of flavor. I don’t recommend omitting the goat cheese, it is what gives this quiche a nice tangy flavor.

Bake the quiche on top of the sheet pan in the middle of the oven until the surface is golden brown and the filling is set, and center will be slightly jiggly.

Cook times will vary, but 50 minutes is a good estimate. It will continue to cook and solidify as it sits. Serve warm. Transfer any leftover to a plate, cover tightly, and refrigerate.

You may serve the large potato pancake for another meal by itself. Pair it with caramelized leeks or onions on top, smoked salmon, capers (or caviar for a special occasion like Mother’s Day), and sour cream or crème fraiche on the side. And don’t forget my Summer Sunrise Mimosa!

Balsamic Glazed Roasted Cabbage

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 head purple cabbage, sliced into 6-8 (1 in.) slices
Soy sauce or balsamic glaze
Sea salt

Optional: Drizzle olive oil

Balsamic Glaze Ingredients:

2 cups balsamic vinegar
Small pot

Cabbage is bursting with flavor in May. It’s a wonderful time to grill and although I have not tried these on the grill, I think they will be just as amazing as roasting. In this case, be sure to use a vegetable grill pan. Otherwise, roasting the cabbage in the oven is simple and will result in a caramelized taste that doesn’t resemble its raw counterpart.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cut the ends off the cabbage and use for chopped salad. Place 6-8 slices, depending how large the cabbage is, onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with a little oil and add a drizzle of balsamic glaze (or low sodium soy sauce).

Roast for 25 minutes until caramelized. Alternatively, you can break up the cabbage steaks and roast a little longer and they get really crispy, and equally good. Serve with a pinch of salt. These are irresistible.

Here is a super easy recipe for making balsamic glaze without the use of sugar.

Balsamic Glaze:

In a small pot, add 2 cups of a good balsamic vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes until reduced to half. I promise you do not need any sugar in this recipe, and the taste is so sweet!

Summer Sunrise Mimosa

Ingredients (per 8 oz. flute):

4 ounces organic prosecco, chilled
Juice from 1 mandarin orange (or ½ orange), about 2 tablespoons
Juice from ¼ lime, about 1-2 teaspoons
¾ oz. elderflower liquor, chilled
Zero sugar ginger beer to top off drink, chilled
Ice to chill glass

Garnish: Lime wedge
Enhance orange color with plant-based food coloring or vegetable dye

If you ever have the chance to watch the sunrise while visiting the Jersey Shore, take it. The summer sky is set ablaze with orange and red hues that light up the horizon. It’s one of the most stunning sunrises, and always leaves a lasting impression on me. This Summer Sunrise Mimosa is reminiscent of a sunrise, and it will dazzle your guests.

Start by chilling the glass, an extra but necessary step. Add chilled prosecco, orange and lime juices, elderflower liquor, and top off the drink with zero sugar ginger beer. Add a lime wedge as a garnish. For a more enhanced orange color, mix in some plant-based food dye or vegetable dye. You could also use some ginger kombucha in lieu of ginger beer. Refreshing, dazzling, and delicious! Choose a dry prosecco that has citrus and floral notes.

Creamy Pea Pesto with Risotto

Serves 3-4

Creamy Pea Pesto Ingredients:

1 (10 oz.) package cooked frozen or fresh English peas, about 2 cups
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons water
¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
2 heaping tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Salt to taste

Optional: Squeeze lemon
High-speed blender

Risotto Ingredients:

2 ½ cups Arborio risotto
Salt & pepper to taste
Red chili flakes to taste
Shaving of Pecorino Romano cheese
Squeeze of lemon
Garnish: Basil chiffonade (also known as basil ribbons)

Cook peas according to package directions. Then blanch them in cold water, about 1 ½ minutes. Drain thoroughly.

Add cooked peas to the high-speed blender (or food processor) along with the rest of the ingredients. Using the agitator stick, blend pea pesto until smooth and creamy.

Note: Blanching is shocking quickly boiled or steamed vegetables with cold ice water to retain their color and nutrients.

Risotto Preparation Suggestions:

Sauté a little sweet onion in a tablespoon or more of olive oil. Thoroughly rinse risotto in water until the water runs clear. If possible, choose organic rice. Use a broth like chicken broth or water to prepare the risotto. Avoid any broth with a tomato base. Toast the risotto and add liquid and cook according to package directions. Reserve 2 ½ cups for this recipe.

Combine half of the prepared Creamy Pea Pesto with the risotto. Season the risotto with a squeeze of lemon, Pecorino Romano cheese, red chili flakes, and cracked black pepper. Mix until well combined. Add the basil chiffonade as a garnish.

This is a restaurant-caliber meal that your family will love. It truly is the “peas de resistance.”

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