“Harvest when the size of a hen’s egg” is the advice I received from Colette who, with her husband Gregoire, grows vegetables in a small corner of the Loire Valley not far from Saumur. She was referring to potatoes as we stood in the couple’s field where potatoes grew in a long line that stretched right to a bank of dark woods that bordered the field. She knelt in the soil and dragged it back from the base of the potato plant and there, indeed, was a collection of “hen’s eggs” that she picked off to put in her basket.
Different Ways to Describe the Theft
I’ve visited a lot of growers on many farms, and they all have a different way of describing the ideal size or moment to harvest vegetables. One of my dearest friends who grew most of the vegetables for his family while running a lively coffee business, talked about “robbing” his potato plants. Another about “waiting for the wilt” which was his way of saying he didn’t touch the tubers until the foliage began to sag. He, obviously, liked his potatoes larger than a hen’s egg.
Why “rob” tiny potatoes, or carrots, onions, or turnips? Because vegetables at their young stage are so tender and sweet. Mind you, good growers know just when to harvest. Too soon and the bitterness of the baby vegetable will still be present. They must wait until the perfect moment when flavor is beginning to develop, and the sugar has chased away the bitter.
Flavor and Economic Imperative
In France, growers bide their time and once they’ve deemed it right, are quick to harvest, bundle, and offer them at the market. Their customers sense the timing and they line up early in the mornings at the market so they won’t miss out. They want those new, sweet bursts of flavor as badly as the grower wants to sell them. For there is an economic imperative in spring. Growers have eked all they can out of winter produce and their coffers need replenishing. We are all, we cooks and eaters, more than happy to oblige.
Braising the Best Way
Braising these tender little jewels is the best way to honor them, because slow cooking in just a touch of water and butter coaxes out hidden layers of flavor. Their sweetness always makes one pause – did I add sugar? No of course not. The sweet is thanks to nature. As if sweet flavor weren’t enough, the colors of spring vegetables almost defy imagination. Never was a carrot so bright, an onion so white and green, a potato so gently yellow….The final fillip – a head of butter lettuce set on top so it melts into the rest – gives a beautiful touch of tender green, in both color and flavor.
Doesn’t Everyone Melt Lettuce?
I first tasted this dish at Colette’s farm. When I expressed surprise at cooked lettuce, she looked at me as though I’d just climbed down from an interplanetary vehicle. “You don’t melt lettuce?” she asked with an eyebrow cocked. I said I never had cooked it this way, trying to save my reputation. She shook a finger at me. “Suzanne, you will cook it forever more.”
BRAISED SPRING VEGETABLES - JARDINIERE DE LEGUMES
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 pound;500g new carrots, peeled and cut into thin rounds
- 1 pound;500g new potatoes, washed
- 10 ounces;300g new spring onions, trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced
- 3 shallots peeled, cut in half lengthwise, then into thin half-moon slices
- Fine Sea salt
- 1 cup;250ml water
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 pounds;2kg fresh peas in their pods, to give 4 cups (600g) shelled peas
- 1 head; about 1pound;500g butter lettuce, leaves separated, heart left intact, rinsed
- 4 thin slices; about 2 ounces;60g air-cured ham, such as Prosciutto air-cured ham, such as Prosciutto
- Preheat the oven to 425F (210C).
- Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the carrots, potatoes, onions, and shallots, stirring so they are coated with the butter. Season lightly with salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are softened but still have plenty of texture, about 8 minutes.
- Stir in the water, season with salt and pepper, and continue cooking, covered, until the carrots are nearly tender, an additional 8 minutes. Add the peas and stir. Then lay the lettuce heart and leaves over the vegetables. Cover, and cook until the lettuce leaves are wilted and the peas are done to your liking (I like them bright green and just cooked through to a juicy tenderness,) 10-15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place the ham slices on a baking sheet and slip them into the oven to bake until the ham is darkened and almost completely crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cutting board and cut into 1/2-inch crosswise slices.
- When the vegetables are cooked, adjust the seasonings. Divide them among 6 to 8 warmed plates. Garnish with the ham slices, and the parsley, and serve.