Forcing spring onto the dinner table

Find a farmers market and make the best of its fresh ingredients to brighten still-chilly days

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I've given up on this winter and decided to just pretend that it's spring.

If you can force tulip bulbs inside, why not just force the rest of it too?

So that meant I had to put away my slow cooker (but not before one really delicious pot of beef stew), forget the potatoes, dried beans and other rib-sticking, soul-warming fare, and embrace what was fresh and green.

If this really were spring or summer, I'd head to the farmers market, pick up some corn on the cob and a couple of giant slicing tomatoes, and voila, dinner would be on the table.

While there are no locally grown tomatoes or corn to be had (and the tomatoes at the grocery store were so bland even my husband refused to buy them), there are farmers markets still going on during the winter at indoor locations in some areas.

When I got to Old Trail School in Bath Township, Ohio, where the Countryside Conservancy was having its recent winter market, the parking lot was full — make that overflowing.

I got there 10 minutes after the market opened, thinking I would be an early bird, but the early birds were already leaving with the cream of the crop, literally.

There were more people there than I remember seeing at some summer markets. Perhaps it is in the dead of a harsh winter when we appreciate freshly harvested foods the most and maybe, like me, the others just needed a jolt of spring to get through the next six weeks.

I enjoyed seeing friends and acquaintances who came out to shop, and found a variety of foods from meat and eggs to apples and pastries.

Unfortunately, I was reminded that we are indeed in the middle of a harsh Ohio winter, when the only fresh green I found was spinach. There were radishes, potatoes, onions and other root crops, but I was hoping for a few more above-the-ground crops.

With a pound of spinach in my bag, I soldiered onward.

Meat was everywhere: beef, pork, buffalo, lamb, roasts, burgers, bacon and sausage. But again, I decided to think spring. For me, warmer months mean lighter fare, so I opted for fresh boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Passing on potatoes and other grains wasn't a problem when I found a display of fresh pasta and purchased a few nests of pappardelle, or ribbon pasta. I finished up my shopping with some garlic and onions, and I was all set to cook a spring-inspired meal.

I did make a stop at the grocery store for a lemon, which, truth be told, I wouldn't find locally grown even at a summer market.

Here's the recipe for my warm-weather-inspired dish, which came together quickly on the stovetop and gave me hope that farm-fresh local produce will be here before we know it.

Sautéed Chicken Breast With Pappardelle and Creamy Spinach Sauce

Makes 2 servings.

½ stick butter (¼ cup)

1 medium yellow cooking onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced, divided use

4 tbsp. flour

3 cups milk, 1 or 2 percent (do not use skim), at room temperature

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Dash of nutmeg, or more to taste

1 lb. fresh spinach, washed, stemmed and roughly chopped

2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, pounded thin

Olive oil, for sauteing

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 ounce fresh pappardelle pasta

1 lemon for zesting

In a large skillet or saucepan, melt butter. Add chopped onion. Season with salt and cook until soft and just beginning to turn brown. Add 2 cloves garlic and cook for about 1 minute more.

Stir flour into onions and garlic and mix well until flour is incorporated into melted butter.

Add milk and whisk to combine. Reduce heat, and let sauce simmer until it begins to thicken and look velvety, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add cheese and stir to combine. Season with nutmeg, pepper, and additional salt, if desired.

When sauce has thickened, add spinach a handful at a time, stirring to combine the spinach into sauce until it wilts before adding next handful.

Once all spinach has been added, adjust seasonings if necessary. Remove from heat while chicken is cooking.

Bring a pot of cold salted water to a boil for the pasta.

While water is coming to a boil, heat a second skillet over medium heat. Add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom completely. Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Season liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. Put chicken into skillet and saute on one side, then flip and cook on second side until chicken is cooked through and golden brown on both sides. Add remaining 1 clove of minced garlic to skillet after flipping and watch to be sure it doesn’t burn.

When chicken is nearly done, add pasta to water and boil to desired tenderness.

Re-warm the sauce. Using a fine grater, grate about 2 teaspoons of lemon zest (or more to taste) into the sauce and stir to combine.

To serve, divide pasta between two plates. Top with creamy spinach sauce, then chicken breast, then additional sauce. Garnish with more lemon zest, if desired.