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Lighten up your menus with the crisp, bright flavours of the first vegetables and herbs to emerge this season

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Everyone has their special signals that spring has finally arrived – the first buds on trees, daffodils raising their yellow heads or the sighting of the first robin. My first signs of spring are all related to flavour and texture. The first vegetables of spring take me away from starchy winter roots and slow-cooked food into lighter, brighter tastes and a different approach to cooking – the quick sauté, the briefly roasted chop, plates of steamed vegetables, lots of crisp, lively flavours.

Here are some spring vegetables and herbs to look forward to and some recipes to spark your palate.

A glossary of spring ingredients

Rhubarb's tart-sweet taste is a welcome burst of spring flavour.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Wild leeks

These delicate-looking but pungent greens are one of the best harbingers of spring. A brief delicacy, they peek out from under maple trees as soon as the snow disappears. They are easily recognized by their tulip-like leaves, purplish stem, and small onion-like bulb. Wild leeks have a strong smell and deliver lots of flavour for such fragile-looking greens. Their taste is garlicky and onion-like at the same time. They are often called ramps, and although similar in taste and look, ramps come from a different genus.


A leafy herb that looks like spinach, sorrel has a finer texture and a mildly acidic, lemony flavour. You can buy it from the grocer in bunches, but it will grow like a weed in most gardens. It is always the first herb to show its leaves, usually in the middle of April. There are two types – regular sorrel and French sorrel. If you plant your own, go for the French variety, which has a slight apple taste and is delicious in a salad. Sorrel literally melts in sauces and soups. It cooks very quickly, and a quick boil suffices, as it turns a faded green if it is overcooked.


Rhubarb’s tart-sweet taste is so welcome after the winter fruits. The earliest rhubarb is the hothouse variety – it is pinker and sweeter than the garden rhubarb. Look for straight, evenly coloured stalks and discard the leaves, which are toxic. The best way to cook rhubarb is to roast it. The pieces stay whole, and the flavour is enhanced. Try it, and you will never go back to stewed rhubarb.


Green asparagus has tightly curled heads and aristocratic stalks – its faintly nutty taste and vivid green colour enhance both the palate and plate. Look for firm, bright green stalks and compact heads. Avoid asparagus with feathery tips or stalks that are beginning to wilt. Store it in the refrigerator, and if you are keeping it for more than a day, stand the bunch upright in about an inch of water. Snap off the base – don’t cut it off. Snapping the stalk naturally separates the tough woody end from the tender succulent part of the stalk. Pencil-thin stalks do not need to be peeled, but for even cooking, peel thicker stalks with a vegetable peeler. When the asparagus is cooked, drain it, refresh under cold water to stop further cooking and pat dry. Etiquette allows you to eat the asparagus with your fingers.


The last wonder for me are the tiny chives popping through the ground and the first fragrant chervil fronds to be picked and tossed into salads and soups. Ah spring!

The perfect asparagus dish

Serves 2

Serve this as a superb first course. Eat with your fingers. An option is to soft-boil an egg, place it in an egg cup and dip the asparagus spears into the yolk.

  • 1 lb (500 grams) thick green asparagus, trimmed, stalks peeled
  • ⅓ cup butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chopped chives

Bring a large skillet of salted water to a boil over high heat. Lay asparagus stalks in skillet. Boil until crisp-tender, about 1 to 4 minutes. Drain well, refresh with cold water and drain again. Pat dry. Lay on a platter.

Combine melted butter and lemon juice in a small bowl and pour over asparagus. Season with salt and pepper and strew with chives

Prosciutto-wrapped roasted asparagus with popcorn capers

Serves 4

Thick stalks of asparagus work best with this special first-course recipe.

  • 12 thick green asparagus stalks, trimmed, stalks peeled
  • 6 slices prosciutto
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons capers

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Wrap each asparagus stalk in half a slice of prosciutto. Oil and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 6 minutes, depending on thickness, turning asparagus halfway through cooking.

Heat remaining oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add capers and sauté for 2 minutes, or until they begin to pop. Pour capers and oil over asparagus.

Green and white asparagus mosaic

Serves 6 to 8

One of my fondest food memories is eating pounds of white asparagus with a wickedly good hollandaise sauce at a small farm restaurant in Alsace, France. The asparagus was succulent, sweet and nutty. I avoided buying white asparagus here as it always seemed bitter, but I recently learned a simple trick. Peel the outer skin (this is where most of the bitterness is), and add a little sugar and salt to the boiling water. You will have perfect white asparagus.

Any leftover dressing can be used with a green salad, or mix it with a few tablespoons of deli-style cream cheese to make a dip. You can use all green asparagus, if desired.

  • 8 thick stalks green asparagus, trimmed, stalks peeled
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 8 thick stalks white asparagus, trimmed, stalks peeled
  • Freshly ground pepper

Watercress Dressing

  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup watercress leaves
  • ½ teaspoon grated orange rind
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper


  • 2 tablespoons chives, cut in 2-inch pieces
  • ½ cup shaved Asiago, Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Bring a large skillet of salted water to a boil. Add green asparagus and cook for 2 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Remove from skillet with tongs and immediately drain under cold water until cold. Pat dry. Reserve.

Add sugar and salt to water in skillet. Add white asparagus and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Refresh under cold water and pat dry. Add to green asparagus.

Combine mayonnaise, mustard, watercress, orange rind and juice and lemon juice in a food processor. Process until chunky. Slowly pour oil through feed tube with machine running. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange green and white asparagus on a platter. Drizzle dressing over top, sprinkle with chives and top with Asiago.

Roasted asparagus


Serves 2

Roasting asparagus is easy, and using thicker stalks will provide a better result. Toss with pesto or a sauce like chile crisp or chile miso, which is available at most grocery stores.

  • 1 lb thick asparagus spears, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss asparagus with oil and seasonings. Place on cookie sheet. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, depending on size.

Wild leek pizza

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Serves 2 to 4

This is a white pizza. The base is a white sauce that is topped with lots of wild leeks and buffalo mozzarella. So decadent, you’ll never have any leftovers. If you do not have a pizza stone, use a heavy baking sheet or the back of a large cast iron frying pan. If you have your own dough, roll it into a 10-inch circle and place it on the hot sheet.

  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1⅓ cup milk
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 2 discs of pizza dough
  • 2 bunches wild leeks, roots cut off
  • ⅔ cup buffalo mozzarella, torn into chunks
  • 12 basil leaves
  • ½ teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 500 F and place pizza stone on the top shelf for 10 minutes to heat.

Melt butter with flour in a pot on medium heat. Gradually whisk in milk and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper.

Dust baking sheet without sides or pizza paddle lightly with cornmeal and top with a dough disc.

Layer each pizza, starting with half of the sauce, cheese, wild leeks, basil, chili flakes and finishing with a sprinkle of olive oil.

Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until dough is browned underneath and topping is bubbling.

Repeat method for the second pizza, while keeping the first warm.

Pickled wild leeks

Makes about 1 litre

If the wild leeks are large, blanch them for 1 minute, otherwise use them raw. If wild leeks are not available, use 2 thinly sliced red onions, cut in half. The pickled leeks in their liquid will be good for a month or two, refrigerated.

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup rice wine vinegar
  • ¾ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • 4 bunches wild leeks

Combine sugar, rice wine vinegar, water and salt, pickling spice and chili flakes in a non-reactive pot and bring to boil over high heat. Boil for 2 minutes or until salt/sugar dissolves.

Pour hot pickling liquid over wild leeks and leave overnight in the refrigerator. Drain before using.

Sorrel and apple soup

Serves 4

This soup uses French sorrel, but the common variety works, too. French sorrel has a different flavour from the more common garden-variety sorrel. It tastes like a bite of tart green apple with a lemony edge. Delicious. If you want to use French sorrel, you must buy the plants and grow it yourself. This easy-to-grow perennial will give you years of pleasure. This soup is excellent either hot or chilled. If it appeals, you can top the soup with a drizzle of chive oil.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • ½ cup peeled diced potato
  • ½ cup peeled tart green apple, such as Granny Smith or Crispin
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 bunches sorrel (French or otherwise), enough to make 2 cups packed
  • ¼ cup whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat butter in soup pot. Add onions, potato and apple, and sauté on medium heat for 3 minutes or until slightly softened. Pour in stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Stir in sorrel and simmer for about 2 minutes, or until sorrel has wilted. With a hand blender or in a food processor, blend soup until smooth. Return to pot and add cream and lemon juice. Bring to boil then simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste.

Chive Oil

Bring a small pot of water to boil. Add 1 cup chives. Bring to boil and immediately remove from heat. Drain and run cold water over chives until cold. Pat dry with paper towels. Place in blender, add a pinch of salt and, if you want some spice, a pinch of chili flakes. Add ½ cup olive or vegetable oil and blend until smooth. Keeps for a month, refrigerated.

Braised chicken legs with rhubarb and sorrel

Serves 4 to 6

With overtones of the Middle East, this spectacular dish looks beautiful and tastes even better. Use either chicken legs or thighs, or the legs with thighs attached. Sorrel, with its lemony flavour, is one of the first herbs up in spring. It adds a real spark to the dish when paired with the rhubarb. The green herbs give a rich look to the sauce, which is minty, lemony, bittersweet and wonderful. Frozen rhubarb, defrosted and drained, is perfect for this dish if fresh is unavailable.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 lbs (1kg) chicken legs with thighs attached
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 cups chicken stock

To finish

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped parsley
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped mint, packed
  • ½ cup sliced sorrel
  • 8 oz (250 grams) rhubarb cut in 1-inch lengths, about 1½ cups
  • 1 tablespoon honey or more to taste

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or oven-proof pot over medium-high heat. Season legs with salt and pepper. Working in batches, sear on each side until browned, about 2 minutes a side. Remove from pan and reserve.

Reduce heat to medium. Add onions and sauté, scraping any bits from the bottom of the pan, until softened about 3 minutes.

Stir in cinnamon, cumin, coriander and turmeric and cook for 30 seconds or until the pieces smell fragrant. Add chicken stock and bring to boil.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Reserve 1 tablespoon each parsley, mint, and sorrel. Sauté remaining parsley, mint, and sorrel for one minute, or until wilted and fragrant. Scrape into stew. Cover and bake for 10 minutes. Stir in rhubarb and honey and bake covered until chicken is cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes longer. Adjust seasonings adding more salt if desired. Finish with reserved herbs.

Roasted rhubarb confit with caramel

Serves 4 to 6

Make the confit ahead and gently rewarm it in the microwave or on the stove before serving. I served this recently as a topping for Pavlova, but you could also serve it warm over ice cream or slices of pound cake. If you can find blood oranges, they dramatically improve the colour of this confit, but regular oranges are fine, too.

  • 1 lb (500 grams) rhubarb, cut in 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup blood orange juice

Preheat oven to 350F.

Toss rhubarb and granulated sugar together in a buttered baking dish. Spread in a single layer and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, or until tender. Reserve.

Combine corn syrup, brown sugar and orange juice in a small pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until mixture thickens. Remove from heat, cool a little and pour over roasted rhubarb, mixing in any rhubarb juice in the pan. Toss gently to combine.

Strawberry rhubarb streusel tart

Serves 8

Add ½ cup more sugar if you are using garden-variety rhubarb instead of hot-house rhubarb, which is sweeter. The crumble topping takes the place of the crust.


  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups sliced rhubarb
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries
  • 1 10-inch (23 cm) unbaked short-crust pastry shell


  • ½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup butter, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 450 F.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, rhubarb and strawberries. Spoon into the unbaked pie shell.

In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar and flour. Cut in the butter until the mixture has a crumbly texture. Sprinkle on top of the pie. Place pie on cookie sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes on the bottom-third of oven.

Reduce the heat to 350 F and continue baking for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until fruit is bubbling and tender. Serve warm or cold.

Rhubarb fool

Serves 4

A simple dessert after a rich meal. Rhubarb varies in sweetness depending on whether it is garden-grown or hot-house-forced. Hot-house rhubarb is usually sweeter, but garden rhubarb has more taste. Always sweeten rhubarb to taste.

  • 1 lb rhubarb, cut in 2-inch lengths
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange rind
  • ½ cup mascarpone cheese
  • ½ cup whipping cream

Combine rhubarb, sugar, water and grated orange rind in a pot. On low heat, cook together until rhubarb softens, about 10 minutes. Cool and drain the liquid back into pot reserving ¼ cup.

Return pot to stove over medium-high heat. Boil rhubarb liquid for 3 minutes or until syrupy. Set aside to cool.

Place rhubarb and reserved juice in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Add mascarpone and combine. Whip the cream until it holds its shape. Gently stir into the rhubarb puree. Add rhubarb syrup and swirl into fool. Spoon into glass dishes and chill before serving.