Vegetarian main dishes appeal to me as transitions from heartier winter stews and soups to lighter dinners that showcase the newest spring arrivals. Spring onions, chives and over-wintered leeks replace winter’s onions and shallots, and other renewed crops of herbs and mushrooms link the seasons.
I use the basic risotto technique to prepare brown rice, barley and cracked wheat, as well as the traditional, short-grained Arborio rice. After a quick toasting of the grain in oil and/or butter, along with garlic and a member of the onion family, I add some white wine, then warmed broth or water, little by little, into the simmering grain. I wait until each dose is almost completely absorbed before adding more liquid and keep the grain moving in the sauté pan. At the end, I add a bit more butter or oil and some grated cheese — Parmesan, of course, but also pecorino, chêvre (goat cheese) or Manchego.
It’s even simpler to stir in a couple of handfuls of brightly flavored, chopped arugula or a dice of parsley, lovage, parcel and thyme into polenta or quinoa during the last minutes of cooking. Swirl in a dollop of olive oil or butter after you’ve turned off the fire. You can sprinkle in sliced almonds and diced, dried apricots to the quinoa (or to rice) to change the name to pilaf or pilau and slant the dish toward the Middle East that way. Or go Italian by serving a light tomato sauce with the polenta.
As new vegetables debut on your local stage, cook them along with your grain base. For example, add peas or herbs 2 to 5 minutes before the grain is done. Asparagus and ramps take barely more time than that in the simmer to turn tender. Sturdy carrots, artichokes or wintered-over parsnips, on the other hand, might need to be cooked separately before adding them. Any of these combinations make a lovely main course, accompanied by a green salad and maybe topped with a little grated cheese.
I also still make a quick pizza with whatever the garden features that week. But these days, my new favorite “base” for vegetables is actually legume, not grain. I love savory chickpea pancakes. Cookbook author Mark Bittman, from whom I adapted this recipe, calls them flatbreads, but they are known as socca in Nice, France, and cecina or farinata in Genoa, Italy. They are certainly as easy and delicious as pizza and can be topped with almost any vegetables through spring and into summer.
Recipe: Chickpea Pancakes
Yields: Two to three as a main course
The version pictured here has roasted garlic cloves, pepper flakes and cumin added. The greens are a combination of beet, kale and chard.
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Optional: 1 onion, 2 garlic cloves, 1 large shallot; each chopped
Wisk together the flour, salt and water. Let sit for 30 minutes or up to 12 hours. Heat the oven to 400 Fahrenheit and swirl the oil in a 10- to 12-inch ovenproof sauté pan, preferably cast iron or enamel. Put the sauté pan in the oven and when it is very hot, remove it carefully from the oven. Add the onions, etc now. Swirl the batter onto the hot oil and then put the pan back in the oven. Bake until the edges brown, about 35 to 45 min. Cut into wedges and lift from pan to serve with any cooked, seasonal vegetables on top or alongside.
Add the grated rind of one lemon and the juice of half a lemon.
Add cumin and red pepper flakes to the batter.
Add smashed roasted garlic cloves to the hot oil in the pan.
Replace 1/4 cup water with soy sauce and add 1 teaspoon sesame oil and 2 teaspoons black sesame seeds to the batter.
Serve with harissa and add 1/2 teaspoons Moroccan ras el hanout to the batter. This spicing is especially good with squashes, summer or winter.
Add 1/4 cup mixed and chopped fresh herbs to the batter.
Top with grated Parmesan or a slice of fresh goat cheese.