In the late spring after my freshman year of college, I traveled to the sloping hills of Piedmont’s Alta Langa region in Italy to volunteer at an organic farm. I learned a lot of things there. I learned that if goats break into your garden in May and eat all of your lettuce, you can’t have salad all summer. I learned what nettles are and that, even though they can sting you, they’re edible once cooked. I learned that the head farmer, Mario, didn’t hate me; he was just frustrated that I didn’t know how to use a scythe without being shown first. And, perhaps most valuably, I learned that you can make pesto out of anything green.
One night for dinner, Mario’s son, a cook at a well regarded restaurant in nearby Turin, made pesto out of Swiss chard from the garden. This being Piedmont, he served it not over pasta but rice, often a preferred starch in this northwest region of Italy. Maybe I’m misremembering, but in 2009 we hadn’t yet reached peak kale: Kale pesto wasn’t on every menu in Cambridge or Somerville and the concept of pesto made from alternative greens was still novel. The dish blew my mind, and from then on I made pesto out of everything green I could get my hands on: radish greens, beet greens, dandelion greens and, of course, kale.
These days I still make pesto frequently, but I like to push myself to be more creative with greens, to use the full array of produce available in the spring, and to apply “nose-to-tail” ethics to vegetables and herbs. That means buying whole bunches of beets, radishes and Swiss chard, and using the beets, the beet greens, the radishes, the radish greens, the chard leaves and the chard stems. It also means forgetting about that dreaded and most tedious of kitchen tasks, picking herbs, and instead using big fistfuls of parsley, mint and dill, stems included. There’s lots of extra flavor hiding in there.
I also like to challenge myself to cook with ingredients I’ve never cooked with before, and often these are things I encounter at the farmers market. After months of thyme and rosemary, it’s refreshing to see lesser-used herbs like lovage, chervil and sorrel in the markets, and come up with ways to use them. Lovage, deep green and celery-flavored, adds punch to fish dishes, potatoes and salads. Chervil, with a sweet and subtle anise flavor, gives nuance to springtime soups, and perfectly complements soft scrambled eggs. And I use a garnish of sorrel, with its bracing acidity, to zap a dish of broiled cod and dill sauce to life.
We’re very lucky in the Boston area to reap the benefits of Eva Sommaripa’s farm in South Dartmouth, where several varieties of greens (sold under the name “Eva’s Greens”) find a reverence rarely paid to them elsewhere. A mythical figure among area chefs, Eva is an herb evangelist who grows things like marjoram, lemon verbena and nepitella (Tuscan mint). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I once spent a summer afternoon picking weeds on her farm in exchange for a giant bundle of nepitella, but it was an even better deal than I’d imagined: The weeds were lovage and purslane! Now, Eva’s products are available at area Whole Foods markets, no weeding necessary.
I’ve done my best to gather all of the above principles and experiences into a collection of easy-to-follow and delicious spring recipes, which can either be followed to the word or used as templates. The truth is that in most of these recipes, anything green will do. Nettles, for example, are a bit tougher to find, but are extremely versatile. Just blanch them (wearing gloves!) to remove the sting, shock in an ice bath, squeeze dry and use like spinach. And it feels unprofes-sional to not mention ramps, the poster child of springtime cooking—whether or not they deserve the hype they receive is for you to decide: Make a pungent, garlicky ramp mayonnaise to drizzle at will; toss them in spaghetti with parmesan and black pepper; or sauté a handful to eat alongside fried eggs. They would also work in any of the five recipes below.
And when all else fails, go ahead and make pesto, too.
LUKE PYENSON is a food and travel writer, recipe developer, food stylist and photographer based in New York City. You can see examples of his work at www.lukepyenson.com.