The early days of spring are when many people become anxious to get outside and start using their balconies or backyards after being cooped up all winter. It's also an opportunity to entertain in a more relaxed setting and to serve dishes family-style instead of the more formal style most people tend to use during winter. But spring can present some interesting challenges if you like to cook with fresh local produce.
A lot of people fantasize about the first crops of the season, when in reality there isn't a lot to work with until closer to the end of June. But even with the limited produce available, there are many interesting dishes you can prepare.
Early spring will give you a quick crop of things like baby lettuce, asparagus and strawberries. Wild mushrooms also come into play in spring -- as soon as we get the warm rains in April, you'll find morels popping up in the woods, followed closely by chanterelles. And don't worry if you're nervous about picking these yourself; you can find them at local farmers' markets and specialty grocers.
A great spring dish is grilled asparagus salad with morels. Brush the asparagus with olive oil and cook it quickly on the barbecue over medium heat. Add morels that have been fried until they are dry and some baby lettuces, then top with a sherry-shallot vinaigrette and grated parmesan reggiano. If you want to take it to another level, add a softly poached egg whose yolk adds a luxurious quality. What's great about this salad is that it's quite versatile. Pair with red or white wine, like Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, depending on the preference of your guests.
Ramps are one of the greatest vegetables ever and also become available in spring. These wild onions have a garlic-like aroma and a strong onion flavour, and they're great if you can find them. Roast the bulbs and blanch the green leaves, then roughly chop and fold them into spun potatoes with butter, nutmeg, salt and pepper. I can't think of a better accompaniment any time of the year; it's quick and easy, and something you can prepare ahead of time and warm up for dinner, giving you more face time with your guests after they arrive.
For something a bit more adventurous, try using spruce blossoms to make a jam or jelly that adds a great wow factor to a cheese and charcuterie platter you can serve your guests upon arrival.
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