How to make the most of Swiss spring vegetables

How to make the most of Swiss spring vegetables
Photo: Fran Wick
Want to know how to cook Swiss chard? Need some ideas for asparagus season? Food writer Fran Wick tells us how to make the most of local, seasonal vegetables this spring.
The Swiss winters are long and mostly grey and dull. And personally, as much as I love winter vegetables, I'm now ready for the spring produce. Of course there are summer vegetables available to buy all year round these days but I'm mostly sticking to seasonal fruit and vegetables, for several reasons. 
One is that I'm part of an awesome Zurich vegetable cooperative which means spending 20 hours a year working alongside our professional gardeners in return for a weekly basket of freshly harvested vegetables. All our vegetables are grown in Zurich, which means during winter it's either stored vegetables that were harvested in autumn or the few things that grow on Zurich soil in winter. 
Another reason why I'm not buying any summer vegetables such as courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines in winter is that almost all of them are being grown in southern Spain where many workers, mostly immigrants from Africa, are living in slave-like conditions. The other issue is that the huge area in Spain where northern Europe's vegetables are being grown is using up the little water that's available in the mostly dry area, turning large parts of the region into irreversible desert. Local winter vegetables such as beetroot, celery, carrots, lambs lettuce and the likes are full of vitamins too, and the absence of the summer vegetables makes the arrival of spring so much more exciting!
Leek tart. Photo: Fran Wick
This year the spring vegetables are a little late due to the wet, cold weather we've had in February and March, but the first produce is coming in now. Spring in Switzerland usually starts with lettuces such as Batavia, curled leaf lettuce and head lettuce. These lettuces make a great salad together with radishes, fresh garden herbs such as parsley or chives and some mixed salad seeds. Swiss chard, another fast growing vegetable, is in season in early spring too – the large, dark green leaves are bursting with vitamins and minerals and therefore a real superfood. Swiss chard can be eaten raw in smoothies, cooked as part of stir-fries or baked as tarts. The return of leek is another sign of Swiss spring. Leek is such a versatile vegetable. My favourite leek dishes are the Swiss leek tart, a Thai stir fry with leek, chicken, red chillies, roasted cashews and soy sauce, and the quick and easy way – chopped up leek fried in a little oil and then seasoned with Maggi seasoning.
In early spring, the forests are bursting with garlic smell from the wild garlic leaves. They can be cooked in various ways, there's an abundance of recipes online. Just be careful to only pick wild garlic and not the very similar looking but toxic lily of the valley. If you're into foraging, you can also pick the young, tender dandelion leaves for salads, or elderflowers for making this delicious syrup – just make sure to leave a fair share of flowers on the trees so the birds get to pick some elderberries in autumn.
The vegetable the Swiss are awaiting most impatiently in spring is asparagus. The season is short, which makes it even more exciting and enjoyable. Green asparagus is delicious as a salad, cooked in salt water and then chopped up and served with a vinaigrette. Both green and white asparagus are delicious boiled and served with a Hollandaise sauce. Asparagus makes great soups too, and my all-time favourite green asparagus recipe is this spring salad with lentils, potatoes, radishes and herbs. But of course that salad calls for a barbecue; for a Swiss-style barbecue you could make these chicken skewers, a bratwurst or the good old cervelat, Switzerland's national hero.
Pick your own strawberries. Photo: Fran Wick
And then there are rhubarb and strawberries. Rhubarb makes a lovely sweet Swiss tart, and it's delicious in many desserts when stewed and sweetened. As for the strawberries, there are so many uses for them. One of my favourite desserts during strawberry season is the strawberry Swiss roll. Strawberries taste best and are cheapest when self-picked. There are pick-your-own strawberry fields all over Switzerland. Here are some instructions if you'd like to visit a strawberry field.
Knowing what fruit and vegetables are in season can be tricky as the supermarkets stock most things all year round. There are many seasonal calendars available online, for example this one or you can order a free paper version here.
Read more of Fran's food writing at Little Zurich Kitchen