Spring Bulletin: Strawberries, Asparagus and More!

There is one word this time of year that Oregonians wait with bated breath to hear, and that word is…strawberries! Earlier this year, as we were coming out of an extremely mild winter, farmers were expecting the season to start as much as four weeks earlier than last year. Then came a spate of our usual cool, rainy spring weather that put the kibosh on that kind of talk.

Hoods on the vine.

So here we are at the end of May, with strawberry season finally starting to kick in just in time for Memorial Day weekend. Whew!

Though Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce cautions if you're planning on getting some of those treasured Hood strawberries for your shortcakes, don't think you can casually stroll into the farmers' market after brunch, because those precious jewels will be long gone. Better yet, he advised checking your farmers' market's newsletter to find out which farms might have strawberries and see if you can reserve them for pick-up at the market.

There'll be berries aplenty soon!

Alsberg said we're likely to see the first flush of raspberries around the end of May, too, which will signal the beginning of full-on berry season—loganberries and tayberries first, followed by marionberries around the end of June. Cherries should be coming on soon, too, starting with big sweet Chelans and the delicious Royal Brooks and Brooks, which should be around for three to four weeks.

The seasonal avalanche of vegetables has already begun, first with wild greens like nettles and fiddleheads, then the more domesticated asparagus, which is beginning to wane, Alsberg said. But fear not, since lettuces are "full on" right now, with romaine varieties coming soon, along with those cute, grillable Little Gems that make perfect individual servings drizzled with a classic Caesar dressing or a creamy miso vinaigrette. You'll also find baby butter lettuces and eye-catching speckled-leaf varieties like Flashy Trout Back developed by Oregon plant breeder Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath.

Lettuce season is upon us.

Spring onions are also exiting stage left as they grow into their mature size, which will be dug up and cured for winter. Alsberg scoffs at so-called "onion scapes" as "glorified green onions" and instead advises getting the solid-bodied scapes of garlic and leeks, cooking them on the grill or roasting them in the oven, then drizzling with olive oil, a scattering of salt and a splash of fish sauce.

(Side note: Alsberg said that elephant garlic is more biologically akin to leeks than garlic. Who knew?)

Greens like arugula, spinach and sorrel are seeing their day in the spring sun, too, along with local fennel and peas—both sugar snap and snow peas—which should be plentiful for the next three weeks or so. Zucchini and other summer squashes like patty pan and the ribbed costata romanesco, all ideal for grilling or roasting, will be around for the next few weeks, with cucumbers coming on strong by late June.

"To skin or not to skin?"

Shoots are on the way out, said Alsberg, so if you see some, grab 'em. And look forward to fresh favas soon—with "to skin or not to skin" being the hotly debated topic. (I've come over to the "leave the skins on" camp, especially for the smaller beans.) The sprouting versions of broccoli, broccolini and cauliflower should be available aplenty, with the new crop of potatoes coming in soon, with more later. Herbs, too, if my garden is any indication, are going gangbusters, which will call for making pestos, chimichurries and infused vinegars.

Alsberg inserts a last caution about tomatoes: Wait to buy farmers' market tomatoes in season. There are apparently some year-round hothouse tomatoes that are showing up, so he advises holding your horses until the end of June, with July being the the prime time for the red orbs of deliciousness to arrive for their annual three-month summer sojourn. I can't wait!

In Season: Despite the News, Spring is Here with Much to Look Forward To

The world has changed. Things are different, and scary, too, certainly more so than at any time in my life. Which is why I'm clinging tightly to those things I can count on, that are beautiful, that are constant.

Spring is definitely one of them. Flowers blooming, trees leafing out, good things to eat emerging from the ground and beginning to come in from local farms. Which is why I wanted to check in with Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce to get an update on spring at this particularly strange time in our world.

"The whole point is, how can we support local farmers and keep people safe?" he said when I asked what he was focused on. He said that buying at farmers' markets and from greengrocers like Rubinette, which get most of their produce directly from farmers, is the best way to keep our local food system strong. Now is a particularly critical time because a number of area farms depended on restaurants, many of which are now closed, for at least a portion of their sales. Buying direct also means that your food is going through fewer hands. At supermarkets, food is packed at the farm, shipped, warehoused, shipped again, then unpacked at the store and stocked by store staff.

Alsberg also suggested that getting a CSA share from one of our outstanding local farms is a good way to get the freshest seasonal produce, support farms and reduce handling issues. (Go to the Portland Area CSA Coalition for a list of local farms and what they offer to subscribers.)

And what is that seasonal produce, right here, right now?

Alsberg said we're almost at the end of the season for raab, rabe or rapini or, if you're botanically inclined, "the inflorescence of plants" (above right). Personally some of my favorite spring greens, for a short time you should still be able to find the sprouts of bok choy, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, kale sprouts, mizuna, red choy, spigarello, tatsoi and turnips, among others.

All of the alliums and wild onions, as well as green garlic, spring onions and the Spanish type called calçots (left)—meant to be grilled and served with a romesco-like sauce called salbitxada—are beginning their season. You'll also find local fiddleheads from Southern Oregon available, along with ramps, which don't appreciate our Pacific Northwest maritime climate, imported from the part of the country that Oregonians call "Back East" (basically anywhere east of the Rockies).

Heads of local cabbage are rolling in, too, as well as a regrowth of winter greens like chard, mizuna (below right), tatsoi and winter arugula. There are root vegetables kicking around, including shallots, storage onions, potatoes and leeks, but Alsberg said that with the warm spring weather we've been having, early spring roots like radishes and spring turnips are beginning to appear, along with fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, sorrel, chervil, mint and chives. (Looking at my garden, tarragon and lovage won't be far behind.) And don't forget chive flowers—I'm excited to make a bigger batch of stunningly pink chive vinegar!

And for nutrient-dense greens, you can't do better than hearty spring greens like arugula, dandelion greens, spinach and early lettuces so fresh they practically vibrate.

Oh, you want to know when strawberries will arrive?

Alsberg says that though the season is running three or four weeks ahead of last year, you'll need to hold your horses until mid-April when Albions will begin appearing. Incidentally, Alsberg assures us that strawberries will be abundant by Mother's Day this year.


Read Oregon Farmers' Markets Innovate to Provide Food, Support Local Farms.

In Season: Summer Avalanche Warning

It wasn't an auspicious beginning to a meeting. As I sat down to talk with Josh Alsberg, aka "Fruit Monkey" and proprietor of Rubinette Produce in the wondrous land of food that is Providore Fine Foods, he said he had sad news.

"Strawberries are done," he deadpanned.

Hood strawberries.

My shocked expression caused him to quickly add, "I mean Hoods. The heat cut them off." Then Alsberg assured me that we will be seeing other varieties like Seascapes and Albions through the summer and into September, though the harvest this year is looking slimmer than usual—the word he used was "trickle"—so he's advising you strawberry addicts out there to get to the farmers' markets on the early side to get your fix.

In happier news, he said the bounty of other berries is about to bury us, and he's started to see raspberries, blackberries, tayberries and loganberries on farmers' fresh sheets. He expects marionberries and local blueberries to appear en masse by the 4th of July, and the "bloobs," as we refer to them here at home, should stick around well into August.

Blueberries ahoy!

A caveat: Alsberg emphasizes that the summer's heat will affect all the berries—it can make strawberries more woody. He said the best time to buy berries at the markets is on the early side while they're still cool, then process them soon after you get home so they're not sitting around in the heat. As for freezing, his advice is to spread the berries out on sheet trays—the industry refers to it as "IQF" or "Individually Quick Freeze"—before freezing and bagging. (I hasten to add that Monsieur Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm would disagree…)

Cherries aplenty.

Alsberg also crows that "cherries are on!" and we should be seeing local—he includes Washington's Yakima-area fruit in that definition—red-fleshed varieties like Attikas, Royal Brooks and Chelans at farmers' market stalls. Pro tip: Alsberg shares that local cherries tend to be more expensive at the beginning of the season when the harvest is just getting going, so if you can hold off until after July 4th, you should see prices begin to drop somewhat. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Costata romanesco squash.

It's not all fruit out there, either, and despite his Fruit Monkey moniker, Alsberg is equally excited about the coming avalanche of vegetables about to bury us in local green (and yellow and red and…). We're in the throes of squash season, he says, with zucchini, crookneck, eight-ball (a type of ball-shaped zucchini), pattypan and costata romanesco (a ribbed green summer variety) flooding in. You'll also find alliums in abundance, with scapes of all sorts—leek, shallot, garlic, etc.—sticking around for a bit, soon to be overshadowed by fresh, as opposed to cured, Walla Wallas, red onions, scallions and fresh shallots.

Purple sprouting broccoli.

There is the slightest whisper about local tomatoes starting to appear, but Alsberg said that it'll be mid-July before they'll be available in any quantity. Peas, asparagus and favas, those fleeting bright green delights of spring, are on their way out, as are the spring roots like radishes and turnips, but cucumbers are coming and local lettuces are in their glory right now. Romano beans and their compatriots are just starting to appear, as are all the herbs, including my favorites, basil and tarragon, along with local celery and carrots, as well as newer faces like sprouting cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli (referred to as PSB in certain circles).

Alsberg didn't realize he'd made "ze leetle joke" when he said that "new potatoes are starting to turn up" (ha!), but shoppers should find yellow, red and fingerlings aplenty. With warming temperatures, rhubarb will be getting scarce, but don't despair, local eggplant is coming, as are melons (by the end of July) and apricots.

A rainbow of potato varieties.

Other bits and bobs to look for include orach, a red-leaved plant in the same family as spinach and chard, and arugula. Local corn will be coming around the end of July, as will the plethora of peppers from sweet to hot. You'll start seeing plums in mid-July with the full panoply appearing in August along with table grapes.

My advice? Boot up your spreadsheets and make a plan to use some of this local goodness now with schemes to preserve some for winter!

In Season: Bound, Hop, Jump, Leap, Vault!

No matter how you say it, spring in the Northwest is a much-anticipated season. Gardeners are getting out their seed packets and determining how many yards of compost their backs can withstand—see this post about holding off on the tomatoes for now—and cooks are dreaming of the bright green herbs and greens that will soon festoon their tables.

Seeing nettles and fiddleheads already popping up in my social media feeds, I figured it was time to talk with produce guy and fruit monkey Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce about what he's seeing on his local farmers' fresh sheets. So grab a pencil, kids, it's time to make our spring farmers' market shopping lists!

Raab-o-Rama

Josh knows my weaknesses, so of course the first thing he pulls out is the list of the various raabs, rapinis and rabes on offer. We could both hear Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm snorting that the only true raab comes from turnips, the rest are the inflorescence of plants, defined as "a group or cluster of flowers arranged on a stem that is composed of a main branch. Morphologically, it is the modified part of the shoot of seed plants where flowers are formed."

Raab with mushroom sauce.

So, with that, in alphabetical order, look for these inflorescences at the markets: bok choy, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, kale sprouts, mizuna, red choy, spigarello, tatsoi and turnips, among others.

Josh notes that each tastes slightly different depending on the parent plant's particular flavor profile, but all have that amazing, vibrant flavor and crunch when pan-fried—I like to brown a little homemade bacon and chopped garlic first, then add the greens, chopped or not—or, in the case of the bigger sprouts, roasted quickly in a hot oven.

Whew!

More Greens

As for other greens, look for watercress, various mustards, mizunas both green and red, arugula, and a new one to me, wasabi arugula—Josh said it has the tangy bite of that Japanese root. (Note to self: must try.) Lettuces are just barely coming on but will be available shortly, and spinach, which is a bit more cold-tolerant, is here now.

Fiddleheads.

With spring running about a month later than last year, wild things are going crazy trying to catch up. Look for the aforementioned fiddleheads, as well as "triangle leeks" or wild onions, which have a curious folded vertical green, as well as nettles. These will be available at the markets, but if you're headed out on a hike, here's a guide to foraging wild onions and garlic.

Calçots, that spectacular Spanish scallion relative pioneered in Oregon by Manuel and Leslie Recio at their late, lamented Viridian Farms, are appearing, too, so make some salbitxada sauce and throw a spring calçotada! Spring onions like Walla Walla and red onions should be appearing soon, but green garlic is here now—use them like scallions or make a pesto to toss with pasta or serve it alongside grilled meats and fish.

Purple sprouting broccoli.

Dribs and drabs of local asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli—refer to it as PSB if you want to sound cooler-than-thou—are just now coming into season, but Josh advises that you need to get to the markets early to get the little asparagus available, at least for the next couple of weeks before the full harvest comes in.

Bundles of fresh spring herbs like parsley, oregano, chervil, thyme and chives are beginning to show up, so chimichurries and other herb sauces are definitely called for. Microgreens and young shoots of favas and peas should also make your list. They will only get more abundant as the season rolls along.

Roots and More

Radishes, spring beets and the small, white hakurei turnips as well as their greens are terrific roasted and served with the herb sauces mentioned above. Small local bulbs of fennel will be here toward the end of the month.

Rhubarb.

One of my favorite vegetables-that-cooks-like-a-fruit, rhubarb, is flashing its red stalks, and Josh said a green variety that, unlikely as it seems, is a bit more sour than the red variety, is also being grown locally.

Look for local mushrooms like maitake and lion's mane are coming in from forests and fields, and I've heard whispers that this year's morel harvest may be a big one. Though Josh warns that false morels, or verpa bohemica, a species of fungus known informally as a "false morel" is sometimes sold as a true morel, so be sure to ask your vendor.

Strawberries?

Still two to three weeks off, according to Mr. Alsberg. Look for them at the end of April or the beginning of May. He said that Unger Farms in Cornelius is the driver for strawberry season in the Willamette Valley, and the first to appear will be Albions, followed by Seascapes. The first Hoods will most likely be available around Memorial Day, though—and this is a mantra we should all take to heart—"everything is subject to Mother Nature."