The thing about spring is that you never know when things are going to sprout -- in the supermarket, that is.
They simply show up, green and sassy from wherever, and you were hardly aware that they'd been missed.
But the fresh goods take their place beside the year-round fruits and vegetables and boy, are they miscellaneous! Each one seems to take off in its own direction. It's a potpourri that refuses to amalgamate.
Sound confusing? Not really. For the coming weeks are going to bring you such varied springtime choices as artichokes and fresh peas and rhubarb and affordable asparagus and spinach -- each an independent entity that seems to go its own way flavorwise.
The one thing they all seem to have in common is that all can be form the basis for spring soups -- yes, even the rhubarb. And spring soups, very often, have wide adaptability. Unlike heavy winter brews, they often can be served either hot or cold.
By mid-March, there should be plenty of new spring fodder in the markets, according to Cassie Browning, manager for Debbie's, specialty greengrocers of Belvedere Square, York Road.
Right now, some of the slack in supplies is being taken up by fruits from Peru and Chile."South America even ships white asparagus," says the food manager. She adds that the California mid-winter freeze damaged the artichoke crop, while in other areas, vegetable production seems promising, notably fresh spinach from Georgia and Texas.
"Lettuces will be better soon this year because we'll be into another planting from the south," the manager predicts. Similar new domestic crops arriving will be late March's fresh cauliflower and broccoli. Spring onions will be along even sooner. Growers started strawberries in January and crop prospects are good. But prices, partly because of the California freeze-drought situation, are uncertain:
"It all depends on what happens after the vegetables are out of the ground," says the manager.
Late winter and early spring normally shows a gradual fade-out of supplies in the markets of fruits, apricots, apples and peaches among them. That's why soup preparations can veer away from spicy fruit combinations and into lighter, vegetable fare.
Fresh pea soup is a world away from its heavy winter cousin, thhot and luxurious type with its slivers of ham and minced carrots. The idea with the spring version is quite different: to salvage as much of the fresh pea flavor and color as you can. The mint and pea soup combination is an English tradition that also emigrated to South Africa. In the French mint-pea version, delicate, finely shredded lettuce accompanies the peas.
This fresh pea soup is from Bernard Clayton, Jr.'s "The Complete Book of Soups and Stews," (Simon & Schuster, 1984, $17.95).
English pea soup with mint
1 1/2 pounds of shelled (about 3 pounds unshelled) fresh peas (or frozen)
4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 quart light beef or chicken stock
salt, if desired
pinch of freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3 or more sprigs of fresh mint, to taste 2 egg yolks (optional)
1 cup thick cream
4 ounces shelled and boiled petits poix, to garnish with tiny top leaves of mint
Shell the peas or thaw frozen peas by pouring boiling water over them only long enough to thaw -- not to cook. Drain.
In a 4-quart saucepan, melt the butter and add the onion. Cover and cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. Pour the peas into the onion-butter mixture. Stir to mix well. Cover and continue to cook for 3 to 4 minutes until the butter has been absorbed. Add the stock to the saucepan, then the salt, white pepper, sugar and mint sprigs. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes or until the peas are just tender. Remove from heat and let the peas cool somewhat before proceeding.
Puree peas, onions and mint in the blender, food processor or food mill until smooth and creamy. Before serving, reheat the soup, but don't boil. If using egg yolks, beat them with the cream until smooth. Add cream to soup. Heat through, stirring all the time until the soup has thickened. Do not allow to boil as the cream may curdle. To serve hot, pour into heated soup bowls and garnish with a sprinkling of boiled petits poix. Arrange the mint leaves attractively in the center. To serve cold, ladle into chilled cups or glass bowls and garnish with mint only.
Irene Rothschild discovered this unusual artichoke soup in Philadelphia's Caffe DiLullo and uses it in her 1990 book "Cold Soups, Warm Salads" (E.P. Dutton, $10.95).
Chilled artichoke soup with lemon Serves 4.
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 sprig parsley
3 sprigs thyme
1 small bay leaf
1/4 cup dry white wine
juice of 2 lemons
4 fresh artichokes
3 cups chicken stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 scallion, finely chopped, for garnish