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Spring has sprung

Asparagus, berries and more signal season's arrival at local markets

Early spring was on full display at the Portola Valley Farmers' Market last week, with winter's bright orange and yellow citruses illuminating one corner of the market while bundles of bok choy, chard and cabbage filled another.

Springtime is settling in at all local farmers markets, as winter citruses and root vegetables transition into berries, deep green vegetables, avocados and more.

For many farmers and consumers, there is one vegetable that officially marks the arrival of spring: asparagus.

"As soon as you see asparagus in the market, you know spring is here," said Maria Abad, marketing manager at Sigona's Farmers Market in Palo Alto. "You might find asparagus all year long, but they're not as sweet and tender. Prices will also go down."

Asparagus will remain at its peak for another month, according to Eva Heninwolf, president of the downtown Palo Alto farmers market, which opens for the season on May 12. She said she likes to add it to a frittata with leeks.

Bianca Pardini of the Urban Village Farmers' Market Association, which runs the California Avenue farmers market in Palo Alto, treats spring asparagus simply: shaved into long strips and topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, lemon, olive oil, Maldon salt and freshly cracked pepper.

For Heninwolf, spring is a time for salads that mix both dark and light greens. Salad ingredients that are in season include kale, spinach and chard as well as other lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower due to the region's access to both inland and coastal farms.

Artichokes are also in season for a short period of time in the spring.

Produce is often harvested immaturely in the spring, Heninwolf said, such as green garlic and new potatoes. Green garlic can be eaten raw or added to any dish with some olive oil. New potatoes are creamier, Heninwolf said, and pair well with a bit of butter and salt.

All sorts of legumes -- English peas, snap peas, snow peas, fava beans -- will make their debut in the springtime. Heninwolf loves to socialize around a bowl of boiled fava beans with some Parmesan cheese and beer.

"There's this bright green popping out of the (beans') dull coat and that's basically what spring is like," she said. "It's really simple and really social."

Strawberries have been the first of the berries to make their appearance at local markets, to the excitement of many. They'll be sweetest and biggest come May, according to Abad. Stem berries, she said, are larger -- and excellent for dipping into chocolate. Heninwolf likes to pair early-season strawberries with whipped cream. Look for rhubarb, also seasonal to the spring, to make strawberry-rhubarb pies.

A particularly anticipated variety are the Albion strawberries from Watsonville, which are "super sweet" due to the area's ideal soil and weather, Abad said. Moti Phillips, marketing director at the California Farmers' Market Association, called Watsonville the "strawberry capital of the world."

Later in the spring, usually in mid-May, all kinds of berries will show up at local markets: raspberries, boysenberries, blueberries, blackberries. Mixed berries mean dessert creations and baking opportunities. Maggie Foard, who runs the Portola Valley Farmers' Market, said she's looking forward to making berry preserves.

Spring also means cherry season, which is "special" and fleeting in nature, Phillips said. Cherries are usually in season for only about three to six weeks.

While the ubiquitous Bing cherry is widely sought after for its crispness and large size, other varieties are worth exploring: the Brooks cherry, a firm red, or a Royal Anne cherry, a yellow cherry similar in appearance to the popular Rainier variety.

"Everyone should try all the different cherries. They all have their own special flavor," Heninwolf said.

Along with cherries, apricots will be one of the first stone fruits to "join the party," Phillips said, signaling that peaches, nectarines and summer are on the horizon. While apricots are great for preserving and drying, the Blenheim variety prove they are equally as good eaten fresh, she said.

Another exciting arrival to local markets are California-grown avocados.

"Avocados (in the spring) are a lot smoother and the oil content within them is a lot more prominent," Abad said. "You'll see it and you'll taste it."

She prefers the classic Hass avocado for its creamy richness.

While spring is a great time for vegetables and fruits, Heninwolf said she is also looking out for seasonal flowers.

"This year, because of the rain, they're going to be unbelievable," she said.

For those who love their winter citruses and root vegetables, worry not. The "late cooler weather" this year means it's still transition season, so there's plenty of winter produce such as navel oranges and carrots for the next few weeks, Heninwolf said.

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