I used to look at myself in the mirror every year around March and think that if I didn’t do something quickly and aggressively about the state of my “fluffy” winter body, I would face a bathing suit season spent under cover. Bundled up in layers of wool and down jackets, it’s not hard to lose sight of what winter evenings spent hovering over warm soups and braises can do for—or to—your body. So every spring, I would join a gym or hop on the Pilates machine and hope that come mid-June I wouldn’t scare anyone on the beach. Over time, however, I’ve realized that when it comes down to brass tacks, my instincts–the same instincts that my grandparents and their parents relied upon–seem to take care of the problem for me. The best part about instincts is they’re by definition “thoughtless.” But you know what? They’re effective too.
Through the winter, our bodies direct us to eat more carbohydrates and store fat. Everyone seems to be subject to—or victims of, depending on who you ask—this basic tenet of nature. As annoying as it is when it interferes with fashion or self-esteem (or any other social construct we’ve created), storing fat and reaching for quick energy foods serves a pretty basic purpose; we’re all wired to avoid discomfort and death by cold. Those who wisely prioritize physical fitness or work hard at physical jobs seem to do just fine. The rest of the world, like me, wonders in the spring how they went so wrong over the last few months.
Long ago, after a long winter of pickled and salted meats, dried or canned fish, starchy veggies from the root cellar, and heavy breads made from the fall crop of wheat, people looked at springtime as a season of cleansing and rejuvenation. Obviously, getting out to enjoy the fresh warm air, see the grass grow and witness the flowers bloom is refreshing in itself. But just as importantly, they capitalized on Mother Nature’s own spring provisions to cleanse the body from within.
In northern Maine, my grandmother and her family feasted on whatever little shoot came pushing through the ground first. “Salted herbs” were one of the first things to pass through the kitchen when the snow melted. Made from either green onion tops or chives, they would chop and layer the greens in canning jars or crocks with coarse salt. Preserved at their peak freshness, these herbs would add a bright layer of flavor to meals limited by the slow transition from winter to spring, and since their shelf-life was almost unlimited, they served the same purpose later in the year.
They also picked fiddleheads—edible ferns that grow along the riverbanks and in the forest all around the state. If you’ve never tried fiddleheads, the taste is similar to asparagus but without the sweetness. They’re popular just boiled and served with butter or vinegar—or both. More importantly, they’re a known diuretic and locals swear they “clean the blood.” So for the few days or weeks they’re available, it’s an all-out gorge-fest. The theory is that ingesting large amounts of cleansing greens will counteract the sluggishness brought on by a winter of heavy foods.
Similarly, my grandmother—as with many of her generation—had a penchant for dandelion greens…yes, the same dandelions you try to kill on your lawn. Before the plant shot up its flower, the greens were picked, boiled, and eaten. I remember her insisting that you had to wash and wash and wash them to “get the grit away,” as she said. She liked to boil them with a big piece of salt pork simply because, “C’est bien.” It tasted good. What she didn’t know is that the fat from the pork was the element of the dish that improved her nutritional take from it: the high concentration of Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, is arguably its biggest benefit. These days we can quantify other health benefits of dandelions—as an anti-fungal, for example—but back then, they just ate it because it made them feel good.
As summer now approaches and we’re seeing these first shoots of life, I’m drawn to the same types of foods my grandmother cherished. In a week, I’ll be heading out to pick fiddleheads along the Kennebec River here in central Maine. Wild asparagus will be sending its stalks up behind my house in another two weeks. The rhubarb’s poking through the soil, bunches of defiant fists forcing aside rocks aside and saying, “You can’t keep us down anymore.” Soon it’ll be baked into cobblers and made into jam. My first batch of spring chickens will be ready for the freezer in six or seven weeks, and the chicks are arriving just in time to fatten themselves on new tender grass and clover leaves in the field.
My recipe for Grilled Vegetable Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette is inspired by the new green growth of spring. Tender asparagus and green onions convey similar health benefits to the dandelions and fiddleheads my grandmother prepared. A quick sear on the grill concentrates the flavors of the ingredients and preserves their health benefits, just as my grandmother’s salt packing protected the nutritional benefits while keeping her onion tops fresh and tasty. The olive oil used in my salad’s preparation assists in achieving the deep caramelized flavor and the visually appealing dark grill marks and, like my grandmother’s pork, provides the fat critical to absorbing many of the nutrients contained in the vegetables. Finally, plenty of fresh green herbs—whether used all at once or served on the side so guests can choose their own—add a final spring green punch.
Whether it’s served on its own, maybe sprinkled with some feta cheese and rolled into a veggie wrap or paired with a piece of meat from your grill, you’ll find that there’s nothing better than a crunchy veggie salad to leave you feeling nourished and refreshed…and hopefully more optimistic about bathing suit season.
Grilled Veggie Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette
This simple concept for a salad is going to be at its best with whatever veggies are in season and fresh. It’s the perfect side for a grilling day, but if you’re not grilling, you can make it on the stovetop just as easily.
Tip: If you have a grill pan, this is the perfect recipe to use it to impart grill marks to your veggies.
Servings: 8 (175 g )
Prep Time: 15 min.
Cook Time: 30 min.
- 1 lb. asparagus, trimmed
- 1 bunch scallions
- 2 bell peppers, thinly sliced
- 2 small summer squash, thickly sliced
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1½ Tbsp. olive oil
- ¼ tsp. pepper
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1½ Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp. fresh tarragon
- 2 tsp. fresh oregano
- 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
- 2 Tbsp. chopped chives
- ¼ tsp. pepper
- ¼ tsp. salt
- Preheat a cast iron pan on your grill on high.
- In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with olive oil, pepper, and salt. Place the vegetables in pan. Cook until tender, stirring halfway through (2-4 minutes).
- Remove the vegetables to the bowl. Cover with foil to let carryover heat continue the cooking (5 minutes). Remove foil and let come down to room temperature (20 minutes).
- While vegetables cool, whisk together vinaigrette ingredients.
- When vegetables are at room temperature, toss them with the vinaigrette to serve.