On a glorious trip to Venice over a decade ago, I discovered the extraordinary affinity spring vegetables like baby artichokes, feathery wild asparagus, peas, leeks, and tiny onions have for each other, how their flavors can link and complement. Home again, this Venetian lesson in spring led me to devise a simple approach—half sauté, half stew—that would accommodate whatever combination of vegetables I happened to find in the farmers' market or my own inclination of the moment. Sometimes I replace the artichokes with new potatoes, or use sliced sugar snap peas if I can't find regular peas. If I am feeling lazy, I pare it down to just asparagus, leeks, and pea shoots, the tender leafy tendrils of the pea plant. Once the vegetables are prepared, the stew takes very little time to cook.
This dish is delicious as is for a first course or as a light lunch, or it can be enjoyed as a side dish; it is also wonderful tossed into pasta.
1 lemon, halved
2 medium artichokes
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, white and tender green parts only, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup water
1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, tough ends broken off, sliced on a diagonal into 2-inch lengths
2 ounces fresh morel mushrooms, stems trimmed, quartered or halved if large (optional)
1 cup shelled fresh peas (1 pound in the pod), pea shoots, sugar snap peas (cut on a diagonal into thirds), or shelled and peeled fava beans
1/3 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, such as chervil, flat-leaf parsley, chives, and/or (no more than 2 tablespoons) tarragon, in any combination
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon lemon zest (removed with a vegetable peeler), cut into fine slivers
Freshly ground black pepper
To Prepare the Artichokes: Squeeze the lemon juice into a medium bowl and fill the bowl with cold water. As you prepare the artichokes, add the wedges to the lemon water to keep them from turning brown. Trim all but 1 inch off the stem of each artichoke and pull off the green outer leaves from the base until you reach the pale yellow leaves. (Discard the green leaves, or steam them to eat with a vinaigrette.) With a paring knife, pare away the tough green skin and leaf bumps off the bases of the artichokes. Halve the artichokes through the circumference, cutting off the cone of leaves. Quarter the artichoke bottoms through the stem. Cut out the furry chokes and discard (cut along the line between the chokes and the hearts). Slice each quarter lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
1. In a large nonstick skillet set over moderately low heat, combine the olive oil, leek, and garlic. Cover and cook until the leek is softened, about 4 minutes. Add the drained artichoke hearts, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, the sugar, and 3/4 cup of the water. Cover, increase the heat to high, and cook, tossing occasionally, until the artichoke hearts are crisp-tender, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Add the asparagus and the remaining 1/4 cup water, cover, and cook for 2 minutes, tossing the vegetables occasionally. (If the water evaporates too quickly, add a few more tablespoons.)
3. Add the morels, if using, and peas and cook for 2 minutes longer or until they are just tender and the water has completely evaporated. Stir in the minced herbs, lemon zest, plenty of pepper, and the remaining salt if necessary. Serve hot.
4. Prepare the artichokes up to 4 hours ahead and keep them in the acidulated water. If using fava beans, shell and peel them up to a day ahead and refrigerate. Prepare the remaining vegetables up to 5 hours ahead and store in plastic bags or covered containers in the refrigerator.
Note: The ragout is also delicious at room temperature or warm, but its flavor and color will remain fresh for only 24 hours in the refrigerator. To reheat, toss in a medium nonstick skillet over moderate heat with a tablespoon or two of water.
Excerpted from A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider (Artisan, A Division of Workman Publishing, Inc., 2001). Copyright 2001 by Sally Schneider.
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