Spring fling

It was wishful thinking at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market last week.

"If someone tells you they have South Carolina tomatoes, they're lying," a market vendor replied to the woman who asked while eyeing a mound of the red fruits on Tuesday afternoon.

Yes, it's too soon by several weeks for those coveted tomatoes, but there's plenty of locally grown vegetables and fruits to get excited about at the markets. Early spring in the Lowcountry is the time for asparagus, onions, cabbage, peas, potatoes, radishes, beets, greens, strawberries and more. Farmers usually post the growing sources of their produce, but when in doubt, just ask.

Cooking by the season continues to come into focus as the popularity of farmers markets rises nationwide. The number of markets increased 13 percent to 5,300 from 2008 to 2009 and has nearly doubled in a decade.

As Charleston author Holly Herrick advises in "The Southern Farmers Market Cookbook" (Gibbs Smith, 2009), don't go to a market with a shopping list in hand or a firm menu in mind. The key is to be flexible and let fresh ingredients guide and inspire you. That being said, a pantry and refrigerator well-stocked with basics lets creativity flow much easier.

Other shopping tips are found in "Southern Living Farmers Market Cookbook: A Fresh Look at Local Flavor." Go early for best selection, bring cash, take your time and shop around. Expand your palate by trying something new every time.

A good chart to what's in season in the Lowcountry is on Mount Pleasant's Web site. Get the link to "Harvest Dates" at postandcourier.com/food.

Reach Teresa Taylor at food@postandcourier.com.

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound small red (or white) potatoes

1 pound fresh asparagus

2 shallots, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup crumbled farmer's cheese or queso franco

Garnish: lemon slices

Directions

Bring potatoes and salted water to cover to a boil in a Dutch oven over medium- high heat. Cook 15 minutes or just until tender; drain well. Cool 15 minutes; cut into quarters. Snap off and discard tough ends of asparagus. Cut asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces.

Saute shallots in hot oil in a large nonstick skillet 1 minute. Add asparagus, thyme, salt, pepper and lemon juice; saute 2 to 3 minutes or until mixture is thoroughly heated. Remove from heat and sprinkle with cheese. Garnish, if desired.

-- "Southern Livng Farmers Market Cookbook" (Oxmoor, $29.95)

10-12 servings

Green peas, also known as English peas or garden peas, are best in the shortest time between picking and plate, two to three days at most. The sugar in fresh peas quickly converts to starch, which is why frozen peas are so prevalent.

Ingredients

6 cups shelled fresh sweet green peas

4 bacon slices

2 shallots, sliced

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 cup fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon butter

Directions

Cook peas in boiling water to cover 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove and crumble bacon; reserve 2 teaspoons drippings in skillet.

Saute shallots in hot drippings over medium-high heat 2 minutes or until tender. Stir in orange zest, orange juice, pepper and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until reduced by half. Add peas, and cook 5 minutes; stir in mint and butter.

Transfer peas to a serving dish, and sprinkle with the crumbled bacon.

--"Southern Living Farmers Market Cookbook"

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

6 medium raw beets (choose from assorted colors), scrubbed and tops removed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 medium white onion (or Vidalia)

For the vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons aged red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon local honey

2 cloves garlic, mashed

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

4 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Fresh cilantro leaves, to garnish

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Arrange the whole, trimmed beets in a roasting pan, tossing with the oil, salt and pepper. Roast for about 1 hour, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Peel and thinly slice the onion and then set aside.

To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, honey, garlic and thyme in a medium bowl. Gradually incorporate the oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the onions to the vinaigrette, tossing to coast. Cover and set aside at room temperature for up to 2 hours (or refrigerate overnight, covered, and bring to room temperature before serving). Once the beets have been cooked, trim out skin and cut into 1/8-inch slices. If using different colored beets, keep them separate to prevent bleeding. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.

To assemble, arrange a bed of onions in the center of each plate using a slotted spoon to drain off any excess vinaigrette. Arrange several slices of beets next to or over the onions. Top with a few fresh cilantro leaves and a light drizzle of leftover vinaigrette. Season with more freshly ground pepper and serve.

-- "The Southern Farmers Market Cookbook" by Holly Herrick

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups tawny port

1/4 cup sugar

1 pound fresh strawberries, rinsed, stemmed and quartered (about 1 quart)

1 cup sour cream or creme fraiche

Directions

Pour the port into a saute pan set over medium-high heat, add the sugar and stir. Bring to a simmer, stirring, and continue to simmer until the sugar has completely dissolved and the liquid has reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 6 minutes. (Covered, port syrup will keep in the refrigerator for about a week; warm the syrup in a microwave before serving.)

Divide the strawberries among 4 bowls and top with dollops of sour cream. Pour about 2 tablespoons of the warm port syrup over each serving.

-- Recipes from "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern" by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2009)

Serves 6

Ingredients

1/2 pound round red radishes, trimmed, at room temperature

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, completely softened

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/2 teaspoon Maldon salt (see cook's note)

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper

About 24 thinly sliced rye toast points, toasted slices of French bread, water crackers, 2-inch celery sticks, endive leaves or romaine heart halves

Directions

Cook's note: Maldon is a finishing salt from Maldon, England, and the Lee Brothers' favorite. They say an 8.5-ounce box costs about $7 and typically would be found in cookware stores.

Put the radishes in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the radish is chopped into very fine dice, four or five 3-second pulses. Transfer the contents to a length of cheesecloth or a double thickness of paper towels and wring out the excess liquid. Transfer to a medium bowl and add 4 tablespoons of the butter.

With a rubber spatula, cream the radish and butter together, adding more butter 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mixture comes together in a smooth, pliable mass.

Transfer the mixture to a 2-cup ramekin or bowl, sprinkle the salt and pepper over the top, and serve immediately.

(The butter will keep, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to two days. Remove it from the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving to let it soften. Sprinkle the salt and freshly ground pepper over the radish butter before serving.)

This simple veggie spread is a pretty sight and better to eat served on toast points, crackers or crunchy colleagues such as celery.