Tender, fresh spring greens—a pure delicacy—are the perfect way to usher in the new growing season. It's likely that we humans have delighted in dining on the first green foods when winter ends since prehistoric times.
And are they ever good for you! The nutritional value varies depending on the particular variety of green, but in general spring greens are rich in vitamins C and K, calcium and iron. They're also high in fiber and a good source of potassium, vitamin A and beta-carotene.
Some spring greens are cultivated, like spinach, endive, radicchio and Asian greens like tatsoi and mizuna. Others grow wild, including dandelion greens, nettles, fiddlehead ferns, chickweed and purslane. Some, like arugula, watercress, sorrel and mache, are both cultivated and found growing wild. Mesclun is a mixture of small, young salad leaves.
Each spring green brings its own distinct taste to the table. Arugula is pungent, for example, while watercress is peppery. Mache is sweet and nutty, and dandelion greens are slightly bitter. Enjoy them all on sandwiches and in frittatas, stir-fries (add towards the end of cooking) and lightly steamed as a side dish. They can also be used to make pesto.
Spring greens were meant for spring salads, of course. Toss an array of them with a light vinaigrette, and season just enough to enhance their mildly sweet to mildly peppery taste. Spring greens are accented by a flavorful vinaigrettes and complementary fruits in this Spinach and Strawberry Salad with Goat Cheese. For delightfully unexpected and delicious flavor, try Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Salad or Golden Beet Salad with Honey Apple Dressing, which combines spring greens, a sweet dressing and goat cheese. You might even toss spring greens with a light grain; this Couscous with Feta and Toasted Pine Nuts is the ideal summer lunch dish.
Some spring greens are sturdy enough to stand up in soups, too, as in this Watercress Soup with Shitake Mushrooms.
Various spring greens are available in early spring through early summer, usually March through early June. Dandelion greens, for example, are harvested in early May and fiddleheads in April and May. Once the weather gets hot the plant goes to seed and the leaves become bitter.
Because they're very perishable, you'll want to buy spring greens close to the time you're going to serve them. Choose fresh, bright green, firm leaves with uniform color. Avoid wilted, discolored or slimy leaves.
Remove any bad leaves before storing. Store either in produce bags or rolled loosely in a damp clean towel in a plastic bag. Leave the bags open and place in the refrigerator. They'll keep for five to ten days, though the sooner you use them the better.
Before serving, wash the leaves carefully by immersing in a bowl of cold water. Rinse and spin dry or spread on a clean towel to dry. You can remove the small stems or leave them on—they're tender enough to nibble right up.