The drab and dreary winter season is finally behind us, and the beautiful bounty of spring is just about ready to be plucked from the earth.
From mid-March to early June, some of the most vibrant, flavorful, and aromatic fruits and vegetables are at their peak of flavor and nutritional value. Farmer's markets and CSAs shake off the frost, and are once again able to provide shoppers with fresh, seasonal foods. Despite the fact that California manages to supply the country with a consistent stream of produce year-round, being able to eat asparagus, blueberries, and watercress grown on a farm 25 miles out of town is a transformative culinary experience.
The mild spring weather unlocks some of nature's most nutritious treasures, in all shapes, colors, and sizes, from the short-growing-season crops like fiddlehead ferns, apricots, and ramps to luscious greens like watercress, which add distinction to any salad. Mustard greens — rarely the star of any shopping cart — are one of the healthiest superfoods available, containing compounds that decelerate the development of age-related diseases. Blueberries are a more iconic spring superfood that are not only tart, sweet, and delicious, but are rich in antioxidants and promote heart health.
Below, the 10 spring superfoods you need to be eating.
Apricot season is short; usually peaking in late April–early May. These stone fruits are less appreciated than peaches and plums, but apricots offer a distinct flavor that pairs well with sweet and savory dishes. Apricots are especially effective at preserving eye health. Their high vitamin A content (one cup of sliced apricots provides over half the daily requirement) combined with their carotene and lutein helps delay the loss of peripheral vision, and is also a remedy for alleviating dry eye symptoms.
A member of the sunflower (Compositae) family, artichokes are at their peak in March. Only the tips of the leaves and the heart of the artichoke are edible; the tough outer petals and fibrous "choke" will do to you as the latter's names implies. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that, per cup, artichoke hearts have higher antioxidant content than cranberries, blueberries, orange juice, red peppers, or broccoli. Artichokes are also rich in fiber, and artichoke leaf extract is commonly used in Germany as a remedy for indigestion and upset stomach.
April is the peak month of asparagus season, but the vegetable is widely available from February to June. Traditionally only the young shoot of the asparagus plant is consumed (the shoots turn quite woody once the buds begin to flower). A 3.5-ounce serving of asparagus is 20 calories and contains two grams of protein, a whopping 40 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K, and 16 percent of the daily requirement of iron. Get your asparagus fix by making a delicate soup, or by adding it to scrambled eggs.
Munching on a pint of fresh blueberries is one of spring's greatest pleasures, and thankfully this snack is one of the healthiest the season offers. Blueberries are incredibly rich in antioxidants, specifically gallic acid. Over 6,500 peer-reviewed articles have labeled this compound as a strong antifungal/antiviral agent, and a neuroprotective agent that maintains brain health.
It might be hard to believe, but broccoli only became popular in the United States in the early 20th century after it was introduced by immigrants from southern Italy. Today, broccoli, which grows well in the cool spring and fall weather, is a versatile ingredient that is delicious either steamed, roasted, or sautéed. One cup of chopped broccoli is only 31 calories, but contains more than a day's requirement of vitamin C.
6. Collard greens
This staple of Southern cooking is actually a superfood in disguise. Collard greens, which are in peak season from January to April, are a member of the Brassica family, and are similar in taste and texture to kale and mustard greens. A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked collards is only 32 calories, but provides a quarter of the daily requirement of calcium and a half a day's worth of vitamin C. Collard greens are initially tough, but are tenderized after hours of slow cooking.
7. Fiddlehead ferns
The coiled fronds of the fiddlehead fern make them look as if they were plucked directly from a page of Alice in Wonderland. These unusual vegetables have a very short season beginning in mid-April and ending in June. If you can get your hands on them, fiddlehead ferns are an excellent source of vitamin A, phosphorus, and iron. To cook them, sauté them with garlic, pine nuts, and lemon, or use as a garnish for roasted salmon with creamy lemon sauce.
8. Mustard greens
The inconspicuous mustard green is one of the greatest pleasures of spring time cooking. The leaves have a pungent, peppery flavor that makes them an ideal addition to stir-fries and soups. Cruciferous vegetables like mustard greens are rich in isothiocyanates, sulfur-containing nutrients that have been found to support the detoxification process in cells. Also, because of they contain the chemical sinigrin, consumption of mustard greens has also been linked to a reduction in oxidative stress and development of age-related diseases.
In the Allium family, which includes garlic and onions, ramps are like your grungy yet sophisticated cousin (you know, the one with the expensive leatherwear and revolving door of exotic girlfriends). Chefs are enamored of ramps' garlicky-sweetness, and clamor to get their hands on them during their short season between from April and mid-June. Besides being an elegant alternative to scallions, ramps contain high amounts of vitamin A, C, and selenium. Ramps are incredibly versatile, and are delicious either grilled with lemon, or pickled.
Watercress leaves and stems reach their peak flavor and texture during the spring harvest. These underutilized greens add elegance to traditional salads, but also offer a host of health benefits. Watercress is a plentiful source of vitamin K and C, and also contains gluconasturtiin, a compound believed to inhibit the growth of carcinogens. Try adding watercress to quinoa, or use it in a vibrant spring risotto.