Each year when spring just seems to pop up out of nowhere, I'm reminded of the power that the weather and our surroundings have on a person's outlook. Seeing the hills blanketed with lush, green grass and the trees in bloom, walking outside without a jacket for the first time in months, feeling the sun shine on your face -- well, it just makes a person feel happier and healthier. And, as if spring weather weren't thrilling enough, the produce department begins to display a bounty of luscious spring vegetables.
The "same old, same old" veggies that saw us through winter are ready to be retired from the dinner table. I start looking forward to serving artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, sweet corn, fresh spinach, crisp green beans, and Swiss chard.
Here's how to buy those spring veggies, store them, and cook them, along with three new spring vegetable recipes to try.
- To buy: Look for odorless stalks with dry, tight tips. Avoid stalks that are limp or discolored.
- To store: Wrap ends of stalks with a wet paper towel and place in plastic bag. Refrigerate up to four days.
- To cook: Asparagus is best when it is isn't overcooked and still maintains a bright green color and just-tender texture. You can cook it by stir-frying, steaming, or microwaving until just tender (about 5 minutes but my favorite way to cook asparagus is on the grill or in the broiler. Just lightly brush with olive oil before throwing them on the grill or in the oven. It takes 6-8 minutes under the broiler.
An artichoke makes you work for its 10 grams of fiber and 63 calories! You pull, dip, and scrape each leaf on a cooked artichoke. Then, with your top teeth, you scrape the flesh from the leaf. It takes about 10 minutes to properly eat an artichoke (I actually timed myself). Each medium globe artichoke also gives you 9 milligrams of vitamin C and 107 micrograms of folate.
- To buy: Look for plump artichokes that feel heavy for their size with tightly closed leaves. If possible, pull back one of the outer leaves to check that the insides don't have black spots.
- To store: Refrigerate artichokes, unwashed, in a plastic produce bag for up to a week. Keep dry to prevent mold.
- To cook: Wash in cold water and cut off stem at base. If desired, you can trim off the thorns by cutting 1/2 inch off the tip of each outer leaf. Artichoke are commonly boiled until tender, but also can be cut in half lengthwise and cooked fairly quickly with some water (1/8 cup per choke) in the microwave.
If you don't like broccoli, chances are you've had it overcooked in the past. When broccoli is overcooked, its bright green color turns to dingy dark green and its flavor can go from pleasantly subtle to stinky-strong. If you're willing to give broccoli another try, try it raw in salad or as an appetizer with a light dip; lightly cooked in a stir fry; or steamed. It's worth the trouble because broccoli is what I would call a super-vegetable. One cup of fresh florets provides 2 grams of fiber, 2,130 international units (IU) of vitamin A, 66 milligrams of vitamin C, and 50 micrograms of folate, all for 20 measly calories.
- To buy: Look for odorless heads with tight, bluish-green florets. If the floret part is yellow, it's been there too long.
- To store: Broccoli will keep well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a few days.
- To cook: Cook just until tender by stir-frying, steaming, or in the microwave. Watch the cooking time carefully to avoid overcooking.
Green beans are a popular side dish and a welcome addition to salads. Each cup of cooked snap green beans contributes 4 grams of fiber, 100 milligrams of plant omega-3s, 875 IU of vitamin A (some of which is from beta carotene), 41 micrograms of folate, and 55 milligrams of calcium. You'll get all of those nutritional benefits for only 44 calories.
- To buy: Look for fresh, well-colored beans. If they're limp and don't snap, put them back.
- To store: Keep green beans in a plastic bag in the refrigerator; try to use within a week.
- To cook: Snap off ends by hand or trim off with a paring knife. Green beans can be cooked whole or cut into 2-inch diagonal slices. Cook until tender-crisp in the microwave, stir-fry in a nonstick pan with a small amount of oil; or blanch (plunge into boiling water briefly until just tender, then rinse in ice-cold water to stop the cooking process).
Spinach, a member of the powerhouse "dark green leafy vegetable" group, is loaded with antioxidants such as beta carotene (3,375 micrograms per 2 cups of fresh chopped), vitamin C (17 milligrams) and folate (116 micrograms). Two cups of fresh chopped spinach also has a good dose of calcium (59 milligrams) and omega-3 fatty acids (100 milligrams).
- To buy: Look for crisp green bunches without insect damage or browning.
- To store: Loosely wrap bunches of spinach in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in a plastic bag. Use within a few days. The most convenient way to buy spinach is prewashed in bags. When buying these bags, check the "sell by" date.
- To cook: Cook until it shrinks down but stays bright green, in the microwave, or a nonstick frying pan over medium heat with a couple of tablespoons of water, broth, or wine.
Corn is just beginning to come into season now, giving us yet another reason to celebrate spring. And there's no tastier way to enjoy corn than fresh off the cob. Although corn is considered a "starchy" vegetable, each ear contributes 2 grams of fiber, 35 micrograms of folate and antioxidant phytochemicals, along with about 83 calories.
- To buy: Look for ears with tight rows of kernels, green husks, and fresh silk underneath the husks. You can peel away the top of the husks to do a quick inspection before buying.
- To store: Refrigerate with the husks on and eat as soon as possible, preferably within a couple of days.
- To cook: Pull off and discard husks and pull off the silk strings. Cook in the microwave, in boiling water, or over the grill. One of my favorite ways to cook corn is to bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the ears and cover the saucepan. Bring back to a boil, then turn off the heat. The corn is tender-cooked after about 10 minutes.
Swiss chard, a member of the beet family, is in season in spring in some areas of the country. This dark leafy green vegetable has bumpy (not flat) leaves that look like other greens, but stems that look like thin celery. Both leaves and stems of Swiss chard are edible. It comes in green or red varieties. A cup of cooked chopped Swiss chard has 4 grams of fiber, a whopping 10,000 IU of vitamin A and 6,000 micrograms of beta carotene. It also has vitamin C (32 milligrams), folate (16 micrograms) and calcium (101 milligrams).
- To buy: Look for bunches of chard with fresh, crisp, green leaves that aren't yellow or discolored.
- To store: Store your bunch of chard, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the vegetable crisper for up to 3 days.
- To cook: The leaves and stems can be steamed, cooked in a microwave, sauteed in a nonstick frying pan with a little canola or olive oil (about 5 minutes) or blanched (plunged into boiling water briefly until just tender, then rinsed in ice-cold water to stop the cooking process.)
Spring Vegetable Recipes
To help you celebrate the season, here are three spring vegetable recipes: a souffle that works for brunch, lunch or dinner; a flavorful soy-glazed chicken dish; and a quick and easy vegetable side dish.
Simple Spring Vegetable Souffle
Canola oil cooking spray
3 large eggs (use a brand higher in omega-3s if available)
1/4 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup egg substitute
1/4 cup fat-free half-and-half or low-fat milk
1 cup 1% cottage cheese, whipped in a food processor until smooth
1 teaspoon oregano flakes (or substitute another dry herb like basil)
2 cups chopped vegetables (small bite-size pieces), such as broccoli florets, asparagus, artichoke hearts, zucchini, or finely chopped spinach or Swiss chard (rinsed and squeezed well of any moisture)
1 1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup chopped green onions (the white part and part of the green), optional
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat an 8 x 8-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, flour, baking powder, and salt and beat until well blended. Add egg substitute and half-and-half; beat until smooth. Stir in the cottage cheese, spring vegetables, and cheddar cheese.
- Pour into the prepared dish and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350-degrees and bake for 20 minutes longer. Serve warm.
Yield: Makes 6 servings
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 2 pieces of French toast OR 2 eggs without added fat + 1 ounce fat-free or low-fat cheese + 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat OR 1 cup hearty stews
Nutrition Information per serving: 208 calories, 20 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 2 g monounsaturated fat, 0.4 g polyunsaturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 510 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 38%.
Sweet Soy Glazed Chicken with Spring Veggies
1/3 cup honey
3 tablespoons lite soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons very hot tap water
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1.5 pounds)
3 cups green beans or asparagus (trim about 3 inches off spears), rinsed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Line a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with aluminum foil.
- In a large bowl, combine honey, soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper and hot water with whisk. Add chicken thighs to the bowl and move them around to coat well.
- Spread chicken with sweet soy glaze to prepared baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes. Sprinkle the vegetables on top and baste the chicken and vegetables with the glaze from the edges of the pan. Bake 20 more minutes or until vegetables are just tender and chicken is cooked throughout.
Yield: Makes 4 servings
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 serving lean meat with 1 teaspoon fat maximum + 1 cup vegetables without added fat
Quick Broiled Asparagus
I love grilled asparagus. This is a great recipe for when you want the look and taste of grilled asparagus but only have time to fire up your broiler.
Canola or olive oil cooking spray
1 bunch long asparagus spears (about 16 spears about 8 inches long), trim the white ends off, rinsed and dried well
1 1/2 teaspoons flavored extra-virgin olive oil (lemon or orange or garlic flavors work well)
Salt and freshly ground pepper as desired (optional)
- Start preheating oven broiler. Cover a cookie sheet with foil. Coat with olive oil or canola cooking spray. Spread asparagus spears across the prepared pan.
- Using a silicon brush, lightly coat tops of asparagus spears with olive oil. Turn spears over and lightly coat other side with remaining olive oil.
- Broil about 4 minutes, watching carefully. Turn asparagus spears over using a fork or prongs. Broil other side until desired doneness (about 3 minutes more), watching carefully. Add salt and pepper, if desired. Serve.
Yield: Makes about 4 side servings.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat
Nutrition Information per serving: 37 calories, 2 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate, 2.4 g fat, 0.4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol 2 g fiber, 2 mg sodium (without adding salt). Calories from fat: 58%.
Sauteed Chard With Goat Cheese Topping
This can be served as a side dish or used as a filling for an omelet.
1 bunch of Swiss chard leaves (either red or green), stalks removed
1 cup water
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced or chopped garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper as desired (optional)
1/8 cup crumbled goat cheese
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts (toast by lightly browning in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat, stirring frequently)
- Stack chard leaves, then cut into thin strips. Add to colander and rinse, draining well. Add to a large nonstick skillet with 1 cup of water. Cook on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until leaves are tender (about 4 minutes). Drain in a colander.
- Add olive oil to the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add a teaspoon of minced garlic and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the chard and saute until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste if desired.
- Turn off heat, sprinkle goat cheese and toasted pine nuts over the top, cover skillet and let sit about 1 minute before serving.
Yield: Makes about 4 side servings.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1/2 cup vegetables with 1 tsp fat maximum
Nutrition Information per serving: 75 calories, 3 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate, 5.5 g fat, 1.8 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol 2 g fiber, 190 mg sodium (without adding salt). Calories from fat: 68%.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2008 Elaine Magee
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.