Oliveto's Paul Bertolli showcases the season's best ingredients in a menu for eight.
Cooking is not only a physical task but is also a very particular state of mind. At its inspired best, good cooking is the result of a special mood and a degree of involvement that is powerfully influenced by seasonal changes. In the natural cycle that governs the foods we eat, spring is the first season and the one that best affords us the opportunity to enjoy ingredients in their youthful state. It is a time to celebrate the immature and underdeveloped--pencil-thin asparagus, chokeless baby artichokes, garlic before it forms a head, small onions just beginning to swell, tender cress and sorrel, young carrots and peas, and small new potatoes sweetened in the warming earth.
Cooking in springtime calls for a certain simplicity, brevity and lightness of hand. To preserve the often delicate flavors, colors and textures of the produce, choose uncomplicated cooking methods and seasonings that allow the main ingredients to speak for themselves. Stow away the braising pot and take out the steamer, skillet and roasting pan.
And shop for produce with great care. Freshness is of paramount importance in any season; capturing that vivid quality is what makes food come alive on the plate. For spring's fragile produce--unlike the vegetables and fruits of other seasons, which tend to be more forgiving of a day in the larder--freshness is all. Sweet sugar snap peas can become dull and starchy overnight, young lettuces lose their grassy fragrance and little carrots and turnips go limp within hours of being pulled from the earth. Short of your own kitchen garden, the best source of pristine produce is probably your local farmers' market. Try to be flexible, and plan your menu as you shop for your meal.
What you find at the market depends, of course, on where you live. Here in California, I know I can count on salmon from nearby rivers, grass-fed lamb from local farms and the first artichokes, cherries, asparagus, beets, carrots and leafy greens. All play a part in this menu. Use the recipes as guidelines rather than rules, and let them inspire you to cook with the best of spring's bounty.
Paul Bertolli is the chef and co-owner of Oliveto Cafe and Restaurant, located at 5655 College Ave., Oakland, California. He was the executive chef of Chez Panisse for 10 years and is the author, with Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse Cooking (Random House).