Chattanooga-area farmers talk asparagus, peas and Vidalia onions, plus recipes

Getty Images

Cold days and nights are a thing of the past now. The sun is shining longer, and daytime temperatures are on the rise. The pleasant smell of freshly mowed lawns and blooming plants indicate spring is in the air, and nature is waking up after a long, winter sleep.

Spring welcomes us with open hands, and treasures of the season are making their way into area markets, including some of the top three favorites: tender asparagus, sweet peas plucked fresh from their pods and, oh yes, those beloved sweet Vidalia onions.

The vegetables of spring may be the most fetishized of any produce. After months of eating root vegetables and cabbage and other tough, hearty things, we're all ready for a change - something more delicate, something that isn't increasing your starch intake with every bite.

Crabtree Farms' community farmer Lauren Russek says the anticipation for spring vegetables has been growing since the fields were prepared in late winter, and the first round of plants went into the ground - peas and onions among them.

Now, they are beginning to appear.

"It's an exciting time around the farm," Russek says.

What cook hasn't yearned for the fresh flavors of spring's first asparagus or grinned in sheer delight as tastebuds meet the sweet taste of spring peas?

While Crabtree Farms doesn't grow asparagus, you'll find Michael Raines munching on his fresh asparagus every morning as he feeds his chickens on his Frontier Family Farm in Altamont, Tennessee.

"It's my favorite snack every morning," he says.

Raines began planting asparagus 15 years ago, and while it's now prolific, establishing his crop wasn't easy.

"It requires a yearlong planting process," he says. "But other than composting it every year, it'll keep producing for 15 years or longer."

When he's not at the farm munching away, he's often taking his asparagus, as well as other spring produce - lettuces, spinach and sugar snap peas - to sell at Mooney's Emporium on Main Street in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Thanks to the world's global garden, it's possible to find sweet onions yearround, but it's only this time of year that Vidalia onions fill produce markets, awaiting palates throughout the South.

This year's crop looks strong, says Chris Tyson, Vidalia onion agent for the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"The growers are excited about it," he says. "They've put a lot of work into it this year."

On their own, this trio of spring favorites - Vidalia's, peas and asparagus - make wonderful dishes.

Vidalia Onion Soup With Aged Cheddar and Parsley Pesto

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 pounds Vidalia onions, halved and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 cup brandy

1/2 cup dry sherry

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

8 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

8 sprigs fresh thyme

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

16 thin slices baguette, lightly toasted

1 pound aged cheddar cheese, grated

Parsley Pesto:

2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

For soup:

Melt the butter with the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until caramelized, about 40 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the brandy and sherry, and boil until almost completely evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour, and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in the stock and thyme, bring to a simmer, and cook until the soup is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Preheat your oven's broiler. Place crocks on a baking sheet. Put a slice of bread in the bottom of each crock. Fill until three-quarters full with soup. Place another slice of bread over soup and divide the cheese on top. Broil 2-3 minutes. Top each with a dollop of parsley pesto.

To make pesto:

Combine the parsley and garlic in a food processor or blender and process until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, slowly add the oil. Add the cheese and season with salt and pepper.

Fresh Spring Pea Risotto

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 shallots diced

4 cloves garlic minced

1 cup Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 1/2 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup mascarpone cheese

1 1/2 cups fresh peas, quickly blanched

Pea tendrils (for garnish, if desired)

Kosher salt and white pepper, to taste

Lemon wedges

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic, and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the Arborio rice to the skillet, making sure to stir it around in the olive oil so that each granule is coated with it, and toast it for about 90 seconds.

Add the white wine and stir the rice until all the wine has been absorbed and then start adding the chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time, making sure not to add more until the previous addition has been absorbed.

Once the rice is just tender, add the Parmesan and mascarpone cheese and combine. Add the previously blanched peas and carefully combine into the risotto. Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with pea tendrils, if available, and a squeeze or two of lemon juice and serve.

Asparagus Carbonara

Swapping out the pasta for thin asparagus spears gives this carbonara the same irresistible pancetta-cheese-egg flavor, but with bright green asparagus at the center.

4 ounces pancetta, cut into small dice

1 pound thin, fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces

2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large skillet over moderately high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain off the excess fat, leaving just enough to coat the skillet. Add the asparagus and 2 tablespoons of water, and cook over moderately high heat until the asparagus is crisp-tender, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and immediately add the egg yolks and butter to the skillet. Cook, tossing, until the butter is melted. Toss in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and season with salt and the pepper. Transfer to a bowl and serve right away.