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Spring’s sure things: Count on these veggies while bounty builds

Asparagus are one first harbingers spring. When choosing asparagus look for brightly colored stalks with firm tips. (Al Podgorski~Sun-Times)

Asparagus are one of the first harbingers of spring. When choosing asparagus, look for brightly colored stalks with firm tips. (Al Podgorski~Sun-Times)

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Updated: August 9, 2011 12:18AM

Even with the city’s sly April snowfall, teasing warmer days and budding green fauna usher in the outdoor farmers market season.

But don’t expect May’s markets to be flush with berries, corn and tomatoes — cooler spring temperatures mean a stunted start for this year’s crops.

“April is the month that really defines what you see in May and June,” Dave Rand, the farm forager for Chicago’s Green City Market recently explained. “So when it’s cold and rains a lot, it can really push back the date you start seeing produce.”

What you can expect to see now are a few spring staples — asparagus, scallions, spring greens aplenty and a little rhubarb — plus the usual collection of larder produce such as onions, potatoes and beets.

No matter what your fancy, shopping at the farmers market nearly guarantees first-rate finds.

“Farmers wait until the produce is at peak to pick it,” Rand says. “It’s picked the day before or the morning of the market, so it gives you a much greater shelf life.”

To find the best of the best produce, head to the market early, as City of Chicago farmer’s market manager Yescenia Mota does. She suggests starting up a conversation with the farmers: “It’s always helpful to tell them exactly what you want to cook and purchase.”

There’s always the impending threat of spring showers. But with Wellies, a few canvas bags and this market guide, it’s safe to say you’ll find more than an arm’s full of beautiful spring produce.


The go-to vernal vegetable, asparagus pokes its head up just as the chilly weather of February is starting to pass.

Grilled, sauteed, baked, deep-fried or pureed into soup, this is one versatile vegetable, and it’s packed full of vitamin B and other nutrients.

That old wives’ tale that smaller equals better flavor? It’s just that, says St. Joseph, Mich. farmer Mick Klug, who brings his purple and green varieties to the Green City Market and Lincoln Square and 61st Street markets, among others.

Rather than get picky about size, he suggests buying according to your cooking needs. For grilling, choose the larger purple asparagus, and for stir-fries, look for the smaller green variety.

With either size, choose bright-colored stalks with moist ends and firm, tight tips.

When storing, treat these vegetables as you would flowers. Asparagus are grown in sandy soil, so make sure to rinse them thoroughly, then trim the edges on a bias. The stalks need a good amount of moisture, so place them in the refrigerator in a vase-like container with a small amount of water, or wrap a damp dish cloth around the base.

Scallions, spring onions
and ramps

With their small, white bulbs, tiny roots and green stalks, scallions and green onions look very similar and are often used interchangeably. Young onions that are harvested before they have fully matured, they have a sweet, mild taste.

Spring onions have a larger bulb and a fuller flavor, and are available only in early spring, while green onions and scallions are seen throughout the summer months. It also is common to see ramps at the farmers market, a wild onion that has a garlicky flavor.

Ideal for grilling whole, these onion varieties also make great additions to mixed, sauteed vegetables, soups and salads; the green stalks can be thinly sliced for a zesty garnish.

When shopping for any type of young onions, look for firm, bright-green stalks and tight white bulbs. Make sure to avoid translucent coloration or brown spots, and keep refrigerated in a breathable plastic container for up to one week.

Arugula/spring greens

Cooler temperatures are ideal for growing a variety of mixed greens — and that doesn’t just mean spinach. Look for specialties like crisp mizuna and spicy, ruby-streaked mustard greens, mesclun mix and baby greens throughout the markets this spring.

And think outside plain-Jane salads. Vicki Westerhoff of Genesis Growers in Downstate St. Anne, who brings her produce to the Green City, Oak Park and 61st Street markets, enjoys braising her greens or crumpling them on top of pizza. Add any number of leafy greens to pastas, quiches and soups, or let them shine alone in side dishes.

Buying greens straight from the farmer means they are triple-washed, “sometimes quadruple-washed with the spring rain,” Westerhoff jokes.

To keep your greens freshest, she suggests keeping them in a breathable, sealed container. “They need a good amount of humidity,” she says.

Simply place freshly rinsed greens in a plastic bag, poked with several holes. They’ll keep refrigerated for up to one week.


“Rhubarb is about as hearty a vegetable as you can get,” says Rand, describing the celery look-alike.

Often called the pie fruit, many pastry chefs reach for rhubarb as they anxiously await the stone fruit and berries of summer, but the tart vegetable is used just as often in savory dishes.

A good source of vitamin C, the vegetable easily cooks down into chutneys or compotes. It adds a tart element to a fresh salad and bakes well into pies and crumbles for a sweet spring dessert.

At the market, look for bright red, crisp stalks, avoiding floppy pieces. Store in a moist environment, either wrapped loosely with a damp towel or in a plastic container with a small amount of water.

Katherine Sacks is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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