Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Start of Spring Onion Season and Fusilli with Swiss Chard & Italian Sausage

By the time the farmers' market opens for the year I am thoroughly tired of the onions that are available to me at the grocery store. Typically storage onions from the previous growing season, their skins are tough and thick and the onions themselves are sharp, dry and—more often than not—beginning to sprout. They require longer cooking to soften both their texture and their taste—and even then, their quality isn't that great. So it is always such a pleasure to evict those old storage onions from my cooking after I bring home the first bunches of Spring onions. They are one of the first things to appear at the market and their presence in my kitchen always makes me feel like Spring has truly arrived (even in a year—like this one—when the actual weather doesn't agree).

If you are unfamiliar with Spring onions, they are exactly what their name implies...onions that are harvested in the Spring. They are the onions that are thinned from the rows as the main crop onions (white, yellow, red, etc.) grow and increase in size. I suspect though that many growers plant extra rows just for the Spring harvest so they will have plenty to meet the demand. Spring onions are delicious.

You will recognize Spring onions at the market because they still have their greens attached. They come in all sizes—from very thin, pencil-sized ones to fatter, baby leek-sized ones to small- and medium-sized ones that are beginning to produce a bulb (anywhere from the size of a large marble on up to a golf ball). When you get them home, store them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. To use them, trim away the root and rinse them well (particularly at the point where the green begins to flair out from the white and where sand and grit like to collect). The whole onion is useable, although I typically only use a quantity of the green that is equivalent to the quantity of white (the greens can be very long).

Thinly sliced spring onions

Since the early, pencil-thin, Spring onions look very much like the scallions (or green onions) that are sold year round at the grocery store, people often wonder how a scallion is different from a Spring onion. It is difficult to find a consistent answer to this question, but I will share what is my best guess. Scallions are just another variety of onion—one that never forms a bulb and is intended to be harvested and used with the green attached. Because these onions don't expand to form a bulb, it isn't necessary to thin the rows as with the bulb-ing varieties of onions. Consequently, scallions probably do not make up a large part of the "Spring" onion crop. Frankly, I have always considered scallions to be Spring onion "wannabes" since they never seem to be as tender and nice as Spring onions—but this could just be because a local, fresh onion of any variety will be better than one that has been harvested, stored and then shipped for grocery store sale. If you want to know what variety of onion you are getting when you purchase a Spring onion, just ask the grower—they will be happy to tell you.

As I mentioned at the start, once Spring onions appear, they almost completely replace regular onions in my cooking—even in recipes that "call for" regular onions. Frittatas and tortillas, grain pilafs and pastas...no recipe is safe...all get Spring makeovers once the Spring onions arrive. The Swiss Chard pasta we had for dinner last night is a great example. This is a pasta that I make often throughout the fall and winter months. From Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food, the original recipe is kind of hearty, calling for lightly caramelized red onions in addition to the Swiss Chard and Italian Sausage. But last night, as I considered what I was going to do with the beautiful small leaves of Rainbow Chard I had purchased at last Saturday's market (from Goode Acres), it occurred to me that a more delicate version of this pasta—using some Spring onions, along with a bit of lemon zest, in place of the red onions—would be just the thing. And it was. Hello Spring...

Fusilli with Swiss Chard, Sausage & Spring Onions

2 T. Olive oil
1/2 lb. Italian Sausage, casings removed
4 large Spring Onions—white and a few inches of the green, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
salt & pepper, to taste
A pinch of red pepper flakes
Zest of a small lemon
2 bunches Swiss Chard, stems removed (about 10 to 12 oz. trimmed weight)—sliced cross-wise into 1-inch wide ribbons and rinsed in several changes of water to remove all grit
1 lb. Fusilli, or other short sturdy pasta
Extra Virgin Olive oil
1/3 c. (1 oz.) Freshly grated Pecorino

Heat the oil in a wide sauté pan over medium heat. Crumble the sausage and add to the pan. (Note: it is easier to crumble the sausage—which might be a bit sticky—if you lightly oil your fingertips.) Cook until browned and cooked through—about 5 minutes.

Remove the sausage and add the onion to the pan along with a pinch of salt, the pepper flakes and the lemon zest. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened—5 minutes or less.

(If the pan seems dry or the sausage was very lean, add a bit more olive oil). Begin to add the chard to the pan a handful at a time, turning with tongs as you add it so that it will become coated in the fat and onions and will begin to collapse. If there is no water clinging to the leaves (from washing), add a few tablespoons of water. Reduce the heat, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chard is just tender (not mushy). Return the sausage to the pan. Set aside and keep warm while the pasta cooks.

While the chard is cooking, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. After adding the sausage back to the chard, drop the pasta into the boiling salted water and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the fusilli to the chard and toss to combine. If it seems dry, add a bit of reserved pasta water. Scatter the cheese over the pasta, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil and toss again. Serve, garnished with more cheese, if you like. Serves 4 to 6.

Note: During the fall and winter months I make this pasta exactly as it appears in Alice Waters' cookbook The Art of Simple Food. Omit the lemon zest and use a thinly sliced red onion instead of the spring onions. After removing the sausage from the pan, add the onion and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to caramelize a bit.

Begin adding the chard and proceed with the recipe as written.

(Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters)

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