Spring Vegetables: 5 Tips for Using Your Garden Produce

Stuffed zucchini and the last of the season's lettuce.
Stuffed zucchini and the last of the season's lettuce.
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero
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We don't have seasonal changes in Houston. We have Pleasant, Warm, Hot and OMG. This year has been particularly warm and many of Houston's backyard gardeners got an exceptionally early start on their gardens.

April and May have begun to yield early tomatoes, peppers and green beans that some of us planted way back in February. The occasional weak cold front might extend our lettuce crops and maybe even our garden peas, but the warmer temperatures start to ripen the fruit of our labors. If we're lucky, the garden may even produce more bounty than we know what to do with.

Fortunately, we have some tips on using those vegetable beauties in the kitchen.

A gardener's spring bounty.
A gardener's spring bounty.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

5. Eat Lettuce and Peas Fresh Out of the Garden

As the temperatures rise, the lovely leaf lettuce we have enjoyed for the past few weeks starts to bolt and go to seed. Once that happens, the leaves emit a bitter white sap when cut.

Now is the time to harvest what you can and make the salads you swore you would eat in the new year. If you still have garden peas, throw them in raw. If you manage to beat the powdery mildew, you might be able to harvest enough peas to blanch and freeze, but raw, fresh peas have such a limited time for harvesting in our heat, you might just want to enjoy them right off the vines.

4. Preserve Those Green Beans or Stir-Fry Them

Few gardeners ever heed the warning about staggering their plantings of green beans. A beautiful February day ignites some sort of horticultural fire in our souls and we want more, more, more. The middle of April comes and we are blessed or burdened with a multitude of long, green pods. If your grandma taught you to can and preserve, you can put up those babies for a future date. Green beans and wax beans are also easily frozen after blanching.

If your family has had their fill of green beans, try disguising them in a stir-fry with a ginger teriyaki sauce or in a vegetable curry. For a hearty side dish, sauté them with diced bacon, pancetta or prosciutto to temper the vegetal taste. A few shallots and cherry tomatoes added to the sauté will add some sweetness. And, trust me on this, a dash of a good wine vinegar at the end adds a little sumpin' sumpin'.

Sweet Chelsea tomatoes make for a great pico de gallo with peppers.EXPAND
Sweet Chelsea tomatoes make for a great pico de gallo with peppers.
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero

3. Tomatoes and Peppers Are Timeless BFFs

While I love raw tomatoes, my husband and children, despite their Italian genes, do not. They stick to tomato sauce. That leaves more fresh ones for me, but when the garden is overflowing with ripening tomatoes and you cannot face blanching and peeling all of them to make marinara, there are a number of ways to enjoy the fresh abundance.

Peppers are usually ripening at the same time, so pico de gallo is a delicious condiment for all the Mexican food we love. The Mucho Nacho jalapeño plant has already given me six peppers this month. I seeded and minced a jalapeño pepper, chopped up some of my Sweet Chelsea and Sun Gold tomatoes, added some green onions and cilantro and had pico de gallo solely from my backyard garden.

As a topping for steak fajitas, it is muy bueno.

Another easy and delicious use for those sun-ripened orbs is tomato bruschetta.
Mix chopped tomatoes, a little minced red onion and julienned basil with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Toast or grill some Italian bread and rub a garlic clove over the bread slices while warm. Top with the bruschetta mixture and be amazed at how something so simple could be so wonderful. 

If I had to choose a last meal (though I hope I am not ever in that situation), I would be hard pressed to choose between tomato bruschetta and a steak au poivre. Both together, and I might already be on my way to heaven.

2. Mix All Your Veggies Into a Pasta

If you need a quick and healthy way to use the produce from your garden, pasta primavera makes the most of fresh vegetables. It literally means "spring pasta" in Italian.

Sauté diced tomatoes, green beans and peas in a little olive oil and minced garlic. Add the ingredients to hot, cooked penne pasta. Throw in some diced fresh mozzarella and some torn basil leaves and you have a fabulous meal for eating al fresco (that means outside, y'all).

The residual heat will melt the fresh mozzarella, making it long and stringy, just like the cheese on pizza. The kids will love it.

Pasta Primavera is the epitome of Spring.
Pasta Primavera is the epitome of Spring.
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero

1. Stuff Those Zucchinis

I'm sure most people do not fantasize about squash. I, however, have had an unrequited love for zucchini in the garden. He has spurned me. He usually succumbs to the squash vine borers and powdery mildew. Until this year, that is.

After envying gardeners with more zucchini than they can handle, I decided to grow a different type, one I had tried at a local farmers' market. My love has finally been rewarded. I would like to introduce you to my new squash crush, the Eight-Ball Zucchini.

This a round zucchini, perfect for stuffing. If they are picked while baseball-size, they are great for sautéing or frying. Wait until they are softball-size and they become great vessels for rice, ground meats, grains and tiny pasta shapes. Any larger than that, and they make decent weapons, but not good eating. They are prolific, but not to the point where I am forcing them on my neighbors. Yet.

Our favorite way to use these little green balls: stuffed and baked with orzo and sun-dried tomatoes, and then topped with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. You can always add cooked meat, different grains or more vegetables.

That's the beauty of cooking with your garden produce. You can experiment with veggies from your own little farmers' market.

And if you aren't part of the rapidly growing sector of Americans who are growing some of their own food, there are always the various farmers' markets that have sprung up in the city and the suburbs all over Houston. From the Urban Harvest markets downtown to the Tomball Farmer's Market on the northside, you can fill your reusable bags with locally grown produce from growers in our region. This is the time of year to relish living in a warm climate.

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