Vegging Out for Spring: Chefs’ Top Produce Picks

Fresh green asparagus on old wooden table. Shallow depth of field

Jersey Bites got the skinny on what fresh ingredients chefs around the Garden State look forward to using every spring. 

James Avery, Chef, The Bonney Read and Asbury Festhalle, Asbury Park
“I love leeks…they’re milder and and more sophisticated than onions. Grilled, pickled, or melted in butter they are a great addition to any menu item in the spring.”

Robert Bennett, Pastry Chef, Classic Cake, Cherry Hill
“Fresh local strawberries are my favorite springtime ingredient! While you can get strawberries year-round from places like California, New Jersey strawberries—in season from early spring into early summer—are the best. The strawberries here are sweet, fragrant and a deep red all the way through! Classic Cake uses a lot of strawberries in spring, for Passover and Mother’s Day, and strawberry jams and gelato going into the end of the spring season. There are also two varieties of strawberries that can’t be reproduced anywhere else: early glow, in the very beginning of the season, and lateglow, at the very end of the season. They’re amazing.”

Luis Estrada, Chef, Salt Creek Grille, Princeton
“Spring brings with it some lovely, fresh ingredients. I particularly love cooking with asparagus, artichokes and fennel. Asparagus, like artichokes are so versatile and can be cooked in so many ways, while fennel brings a mellow, sweet flavor, like licorice, which can liven up any dish! That’s without getting into the health benefits of all these ingredients. I have a couple of go-to dishes around this time of year: first, halibut with beet juice and horseradish cream, and then there’s poached egg with roasted asparagus, prosciutto and chive oil! Delicious!”

Jeremy Goldberg, Chef, Essex Junction, Bloomfield
“Spring just makes me want to get outside so being able to cook quick, simple, fresh seasonal items is a no-brainer. One of my favorites is spring onions. The small, sweet bulb and intense, scallion-like stem make a great combination of flavors. They can be eaten solo or added to almost any dish. At Essex Junction, we have an awesome roasted garlic green bean and spring onion side. Even the non-vegetable eater orders seconds!”

Bryan Gregg, Chef/Owner, Escape Montclair
“Spring peas: super versatile. You can use whole plant from blossoms to greens, pods and of course the pea. We will feature them all over our spring menus, starting with a pea salad with multiple textures and temperatures and a sweet pea, bacon and pearl onion soup.”

fresh rampsKevin Guinta, Chef, Rastelli Market Fresh, Deptford and Marlton
“Chefs only have a short window in the early spring to use the highest quality ingredients to create a memorable meal, so we have to make use of the short season of local produce. Some of my favorites include white asparagus, ramps, and spring peas. If I had to rate one above all, my personal favorite would be ramps. The typical season of this vegetable lasts only a few weeks, usually from March to April. Just as the trees begin to bud, ramps start to flourish and appear at Farmers Markets and on restaurant menus. My produce huckster is knocking at the back door with these tasty wild leeks during this time of the year. Ramps are also very versatile. They have a grassy, garlicky, slightly peppery, and onion flavor. They can be grilled, sautéed, battered and fried, made into biscuits, and they go great with eggs. Here, I have the capability to select from an abundance of product supplied by our own meat or seafood company.”

Francesco Palmieri, Chef, The Orange Squirrel, Bloomfield
“Fresh mint was the first spring ingredient really starting to show its bright green leaves in my garden. We use this through the season in our kitchen in some sauces as well as in specific salads and also throughout our bar program. Ready for a mint julep or mojito, anyone?”

Dan Palsi, Chef, Waypoint 622, Brielle
“Dandelions! My grandfather and I used to forage for them ourselves every spring—the young tender ones. Great in salad, love to sauté them in olive oil with cannellini beans. Baseball and beagles—what better way to celebrate spring than to enjoy rabbit harvested from our winter hunts braised with cognac and mushrooms tossed with grandma’s homemade pasta and topped with fresh dandelion salad while watching a baseball game and laughing about the great time spent with our hounds out in the field? Food is life, baby!”

Rakesh Ramola, Chef/Owner, Indeblue, Collingswood
“I incorporate seasonal items in all of my monthly specials menus. During the next few months I’ll be featuring mustard greens, fennel, artichokes, beets, peas, cabbage, mushrooms, peppers, potatoes, and of course, Jersey tomatoes. I purchase my produce locally at Springdale Farms, Johnson’s Farm and the Collingswood Farmers Market which opens every May. I really enjoy marinating and roasting my vegetables using my tandoori oven. I use my vegetables [for] soups, curries, and salads.”

Brian Sabarese, Chef, The Arlington, Ship Bottom
“Just got my first shipment of spring ramps I just love their garlic and onion flavor. I pickle the bulbs so I can have them all year!”

Todd Villani, Chef/Owner, Terre a Terre, Carlstadt
“I love asparagus. I just love the way it pops up in spring—kind of want to take out the grill and use it. Puts me in a spring mood!”