early season delights

Flavor can be elusive. Many is the time I've ordered a green salad at a restaurant only to be disappointed by wilted or bland greens and veggies that are mere variations on spongy and weak tasting. I've even filled a basket with organic salad fixings at the market, only to get home and find them the same, leaving me to wonder how many days had passed since they were harvested, days during which both the taste and nutritive value have leached away.

spring greens.jpg

Flavor can be elusive. Many is the time I've ordered a green salad at a restaurant only to be disappointed by wilted or bland greens and veggies that are mere variations on spongy and weak tasting. I've even filled a basket with organic salad fixings at the market, only to get home and find them the same, leaving me to wonder how many days had passed since they were harvested, days during which both the taste and nutritive value have leached away.

Clearly, that is not the case with the array of early season items above, picked just moments before this photo was taken, rinsed and assembled into a simple salad whose flavors popped in the mouth. Clockwise from left (add the word "fresh" before each item that follows): chives, flat-leaf parsley, mixed baby greens, radishes, cilantro, and ruby mustard greens.

radishes.jpg

It's been a strange spring on the Front Range of Colorado. Winter was mild here, as elsewhere in so much of the U.S., and finished by leaving drought conditions and early spring surges of heat. Last year we had significant rain, which gave early plantings a boost; this year, perennials have struggled in the parching heat and wind, even though the blossoms on the forsythia were stunning. As we turn to May, I'm hoping for at least the occasional drenching rain—hoping but not expecting it.

Our last frost usually occurs within the next ten days and just this morning, a very light rime lay on the grass at dawn, courtesy of the skies clearing late yesterday, allowing heat to escape. It's going to be a tricky call in coming days: plant delicate things early for the boost in growing days or hold back a while longer and be safe? Having a greenhouse allows me to take the latter course and not lose much but for those who have rushed forward with planting, this could be a difficult season.

Fortunately, early season greens thrive in the cool high plains weather of April. We've been making forays into the herb patch, sometimes pre-dawn, to snag herbs to add to the oh-so-fresh eggs from our six chickens, all laying like pros these days. Even as the chives go to seed the cilantro is coming in fast, alongside healthy contributors like French tarragon, Italian parsley, and lemon thyme.

Intense, pungent, savory—it's a good day when these fresh flavors grace a dish. Winter, the season of flavors preserved and dried, is giving way to a run of weeks stretching into October, where we'll draw directly from the source, losing none of the textures, tastes, vitamins, and minerals of our produce. A salad garden is one of the easiest things to grow for a beginning gardener or a person with little space with which to work. An area just a couple feet square can yield a bounty of greens like those above, all before the first of May. You don't need a lot to make it happen—just a bit of work to prepare the soil in a patch (or even a large container or two) that gets sun for a good portion of the day.

For more seasoned gardeners, especially those working an established garden, there is the knowledge that while one cultivates these early season delights, there is the promise others everywhere, as in this tiny peach just breaking out of its blossom coat, intent on swelling full of peach flavor and sweetness for a midsummer harvest. 

peach1.jpg