They’re all ingredients you know; no longer novel on their face. But they’re coming on strong here in the Inland Northwest.
And they’re damn delicious.
Beyond the tastiness, the usual tropes, there’s a wealth of nuances and unknown benefits (nutritionally and culinarily); and an exceptionally-exciting variance of applications in Spokane (and nearby Coeur d’Alene). At the very least, these seasonal newcomers are diverse and showcased by this town’s band of (underrated) produce-gurus and culinary assassins.
So what’s coming-on in the Spokane area?
The Beta vulgaris variety we all know & love is a inimitable combination of sweet and earthy, crunchy and succulent. The compound imparting a soil-minerality quality to the flesh (geosmin) being a constant, beets were originally long, thin and sweeter, a humble tuber originally overlooked in favor of its greens (It is written about in 4th Century BCE.). It wasn’t until the 1500s that the current incarnation appeared in print, with sugary varieties eventually dominating as sugar production gained an international foothold.
The last three decades of culinary locavorism inspired generations of farmers, growers and chefs, producing types chock-full of regional flavor, color and vitamins (It’s rumored to moderate blood pressure.).
Loaded with water soluble flavor compounds, beets take well to cold infusions (steep them in flavorful liquid); pickling (some vinegar, sugar, rosemary, garlic and chile flake); steaming and boiling. Roasting or steaming accentuates the mineral-y qualities, while certain brines help to bring out sweetness and a crunchiness that persists even after cooking-through (à la water chestnuts).
CHERRIES: BINGS AND RAINIERS
As juicy as they are perishable, fresh cherries are an early summer delicacy: nutritional and worth savoring*. The Washington varietals are uniquely complex, encompassing the known sweet fruit (Prunus avium), which begot the sour (cerasus). But it’s the hybridization of the Bing that gives the Evergreen State an edge: the yellow-fleshed, thin skinned and pleasantly floral Rainier cherry.
Beyond unique and unappreciatively useful, cherries can be flavor chameleons. They’re almost herbaceous, peppery and “almondy”; sometimes tart, sometimes cloying in their sweetness, but always versatile. Cherries are excellent anti-inflammatories, and contain decent amounts of Vitamin C and other antioxidants. So that pie’s gotta be healthy. Cherries are renowned in desserts, and nowadays, in health tonics. But they’re are also excellent in a chutney or gastrique—toeing the sweet-sour line—poured over wild game, duck or pork. They’re great as a salad garnish, or reduced into a syrupy barbeque sauce.
(And cooked with the pit, the flavor is accentuated; but therein lies some obvious dental hazards.)
*Outside the modern maraschino, a sterilized, sweetened and dyed-red distortion of its Italian liqueur-preserved ancestor.
STONEFRUITS: APRICOTS, PEACHES, AND NECTARINES
Gifted to the West from China (via Rome), the ancient apricot spawned a plethora. Colors range from red to pale to the familiar orange, with flavors across the spectrum: tart, sweet, salty-sour (Japanese umeboshi, for example). From the Latin for “precocious”, apricots arrive early and fast—they grow rapidly, apparently—allowing for quick harvest, but susceptible to unpredictable weather.
High in pectin—the plant equivalent of the thickening-agent gelatin—the fruit is excellent for preserving, jamming and imbuing a toothsome chew when sweetened and dried. Their texture is luscious; they’re so floral and fruity it’s sexy.
Peaches, and their “hairless” (trichome-less) brothers, nectarines, are also making themselves known. Cultivated in China, and brought to the West via modern-day Iran (hence the name, from “Persia”), this 8,000-year old species eventually rooted itself in America circa 1800. Desserts aside (and they’re awesome), peaches are equally savory.
GREENS: MUSTARD AND MESCLUN
Just before the summertime eruption of lettuces and frisée, they’re a handful of tasty greens popping up in markets and on seasonal menus.
Savory and spicy, horseradish-y and slightly bitter, mustard greens are an inimitable; as a side, salad, wrap or braised dish. Of the order Brassicas, and a cousin to cabbage and broccoli, this plant is complex in flavor and utility. Available throughout the summer and fall (even into winter), mustard greens are particularly bright-tasting earlier in the season.
Now distilled to a sometimes bland variety of “spring mixes”, too many mediocre operations employ versions far removed from the crisp, aromatic, French roots. But fear not, the Spokane region sports a milieu. As with any good produce, the freshest is (usually) the most local. And come summertime, vendors and markets display a kaleidoscope of Baby Greens, sweet and succulent, running the gamut from dandelion to arugula, spinach to frisée.
PEAS: SNAP AND SNOW
‘Tis the season for these delicious green vines, notably the three NW incarnates.
There are the flat, whole pods of the snow pea, entirely edible, giving chew and greenness to Chinese stir-fry. Their sweeter, fiber-encased cousins (the English or garden pea) must be shelled, and are excellent lightly blanched, sautéed or puréed.
A cross between snow and garden varieties, sugar snaps are a welcome crunchy-sweet accent to any summer dish. A delicacy in their raw state, these plump morsels are best served showcasing their greenness; their freshness; their “snap” when bitten.
In any form, the green pea is a sphere of nutritional and culinary near-perfection. It can be sweet and pair well with cream and butter and mint; alongside meat; or within ravioli.
BERRIES: PACIFIC BLACKBERRIES, RASPBERRIES, ET AL
Picture a “blackberry”: it’s tart and sweet; a fruit entangling roadsides, underbrush and seasonal menus. Cousin to the rose, this thorny survivor’s armor belies a succulent, deep and complex flavor lending itself to savory and sweet alike.
But that blackberry is a Himalayan extract, different from the Northwestern incarnation. Far superior is the Mountain Berry (or Trailing Berry), a wild breed second to none. It’s a vigorous spreader of sweeter and pleasantly-seeded bulbs, a sought-after variety that’s surprisingly useful. (A recently-created thornless variety, the Columbia Star, is impressive, too).
Named for a red-sweet wine of antiquity, raspberries have that great combination of balanced tartness, texture and a plethora of culinary applications. “They’re good and good for you.” Another acolyte of the rose family, raspberries in Washington are juicy and fun-on-the-tongue. But in the Evergreen State, they can get exotic: Brandywines are more purple than anything, and the Black species are both a deep violet-blue and exceptionally fuzzy.
A host of other species are worth checking-out, all coming on strong this summer and into the Fall: bright orange, but mild, Salmonberries; tart and neon red Thimbleberries; and, of course, the singular huckleberry.
Honorable mentions: rhubarb, summer squash,