Springtime is a season of renewal, and that applies to your grocery cart as well as to the outside world. After the long, cold winter, it’s a time when fresh, locally or regionally grown foods begin to filter back into the farmers markets and grocery produce sections.
Buying foods in season isn’t necessarily about saving money, although abundance often drives prices down. Some foods are only available in the springtime, even in the modern age of worldwide growing and refrigerated shipping. Seasonal fruits and seasonal vegetables are often grown closer to home, which means they’re fresher and more flavorful when they reach your table.
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It’s technically a vegetable, but rhubarb’s tart, fruity flavor made it a firm springtime favorite in the days before refrigeration, when it was one of the new season’s first dessert-worthy offerings. It’s not always easy finding affordable foods that are also good for you, but with rhubarb, it’s always worth stocking up on in spring, whether you get your supply from the farmers market or your grandmother’s backyard. This is the only time you’ll find fresh rhubarb — although frozen is available year-round.
If you have more than you can use in the short term, make a syrup by boiling equal quantities of sugar and water, then poach the rhubarb for a few minutes. Once it’s cooled, you can pack it in its syrup for use through the year in desserts or baked goods. The syrup is useful too, as a tart ingredient in sauces or vinaigrettes.
For food lovers in the Northeast or Pacific Northwest, fiddleheads are as sure a sign of spring as the first robin. The immature sprouts of specific woodland ferns, these curled and fuzzy green vegetables have a delicate flavor that’s often compared to asparagus or very new, delicate green beans.
They’re foraged from the wild and have a very short season, usually just a week or two depending on the weather, so don’t hesitate to buy them fresh if you see them in a store. Rinse them well and brush them gently to remove any soil or papery husks before cooking, and always cook them fully because they can cause nasty stomach cramps if they’re undercooked. If you have extra, blanch them briefly in boiling water before freezing them for later use.
Spring is the optimal time to buy this inexpensive and heart-healthy food. As with many other delicate vegetables, asparagus is tastiest when it’s freshly harvested — and no matter where you live, that means springtime.
Use tiny, chopstick-thin asparagus for stir-fries, omelets or garnishes; thicker stems are better for steaming. Asparagus is highly perishable, so plan to freeze or pickle the leftovers if you buy more than you can eat immediately.
Growers can use lighting and greenhouses to manipulate plants into producing at almost any time of year, but animals are a little more stubborn. Sheep, for the most part, are hard-wired to make lambs in springtime, which is why “spring lamb” is a widespread marketing term.
Locally raised lamb isn’t necessarily cheaper than blast-frozen cuts from Australia or New Zealand, but it’s fresh and you’ll know you’ve supported a local farmer. At the better farm markets, you can even get to know your growers and pick one you personally like and trust. All you’ll need now is to plan the perfect way to prepare your lamb.
Regular oranges are available all year at the supermarket, but blood oranges are definitely a springtime treat. They’re harvested in winter and reach the market early in the year, usually only lasting for a few months. And you can even save a few bucks on these items because oranges aren’t an item you have to buy organic.
The vividly colored Moros are the first to hit the market, starting as early as December in some parts of the country and lasting until March. The tastier Tarocco variety arrives as early as January and can last into April, but doesn’t have the same dramatic color as the Moro. In some markets, you’ll also see the Sanguinello orange, which is the last of the three to ripen and can be available as late as May.
Pea shoots are a relatively new arrival in the supermarket produce section, though you’ll see them at farmers markets fairly often. They’re exactly what the name suggests: the tiny, immature shoots of newly sprouted pea plants. You’ll see them as tiny bundles of leaves and vermicelli-sized vines, mounded high or in small bags.
They taste much like snap peas, and you can use them either raw in salads and sandwiches or cooked in stir-fries, omelets and other light dishes. If you have the opportunity to buy them in bulk, blanch your surplus and then freeze them in single portions in airtight plastic bags.
Logically enough, snap peas arrive in stores shortly after the pea shoots. The slender pods are harvested while the peas inside are still immature and barely there, and the pod itself is the vegetable.
They’re a quintessential stir-fry ingredient, but snap peas have plenty of other uses. Slice them into strips and add them to your salads, for example, to lend them some crunch and a fresh, green, spring-like flavor. Alternatively, simmer de-stringed pods in broth and then puree them for a light, seasonal take on pea soup.
Most gardeners know how to get a jump-start on the growing season by starting plants indoors. Belgian endive takes this a step further: The plants are grown in the dark, which gives them their distinctively pale color and mild, pleasant bitterness.
The oblong leaves can be torn or cut for salads and stir-fries, but they’re also ideal as a base to fill with other foods. Raw leaves can serve as a vehicle for savory appetizers or individual salads, or fill them instead with grains or meat-based fillings and bake them for an easy side dish.
Strawberries are one of springtime’s most iconic seasonal fruits. They’re available year-round now, but it still makes sense to buy them in spring when you can. The mass-market varieties are bred for sturdiness rather than flavor, so they’ll stand up to traveling for thousands of miles in a truck. Seasonal strawberries from your local grower might not be as big or pretty, but they’ll often taste much better.
Strawberries typically only last for a few days after they’re picked, but they freeze well so buy them in bulk when you have the opportunity. Turn them into jams and preserves if you have the time, otherwise freeze them whole or sliced and lightly sprinkled with sugar.
Green beans are at their best when they’re young, slender and freshly picked. Unless you have a garden of your own, that means you’ll enjoy them most when you buy them as a seasonal vegetable from local growers. Their flavor is more delicate, and the seeds inside early season beans are smaller and less mature.
New green beans can be used raw in salads or barely cooked in stir-fries, where their crunch and fresh green flavor shows to good advantage. They’re also delightful as a side dish when simply steamed and served with fresh herbs or a pat of butter. Any extras can be blanched and frozen for use later in the year.
New Baby Potatoes
Potatoes aren’t necessarily a vegetable that’s easy to get excited about. They’re cheap and plentiful all year, and usually only play a background role behind other foods. In spring, though, when new baby potatoes become available, they’re well worth seeking out.
New potatoes have a light, sweet, fresh flavor and firm texture that make them very different from mature potatoes, even when they’re grown from the same cultivar. If you’ve never indulged in them before, buy a few pounds and steam or boil them until they’re just tender. Tossed with a pat of butter and a handful of freshly chopped parsley or dill, they’re a memorable culinary experience all on their own.
There are two distinct seasons for garlic: One for spring-planted varieties harvested in fall, and one for autumn-planted varieties harvested in spring. You’ll notice the difference in a heartbeat if you’re looking for it. One week the fresh garlic at your supermarket will be dry, half-sprouted and nearly weightless, and the next week it will be plump, juicy and heavy. That’s the new spring crop.
Whatever your favorite garlic-centric recipe, now is the time to make it. Garlic wings, honey-garlic ribs, hundred-clove chicken and creamy garlic soup will all be better now than through most of the rest of the year.
Like blood oranges, avocados are a late-season crop, maturing on the tree through the winter months and arriving at markets in spring. Even better, they don’t begin to ripen until after they’re picked, which means they’re hard and durable when they’re shipped to the stores but soften to ripe lushness after they arrive.
Avocados are versatile, great for dishes beyond guacamole. They’re a fine addition to salads, sandwiches and wraps, or you can grill them as a side dish once you open up your barbecue for a dinner party. Surprisingly, they even work well as a base for sorbet or ice cream.
After a few months of winter’s rich comfort foods, it’s definitely time for lighter seasonal foods such as fresh spring greens. One of the first to hit the market is chard. Its dark green leaves and rainbow-hued stems make a sharp break from the drab tones of wintertime stews.
Young, tender chard leaves go well in salads or even sandwiches, but the mature leaves are best when cooked. Steam or boil them as a side dish, or trim the stems from the leaves and add them separately to stir-fries and pilafs. The leaves are a fine addition to omelets or quiches, and in the south of France, they’re even baked into pies.
Fennel is one of the most beloved ingredients in Mediterranean cuisine. It resembles a pot-bellied celery topped with a spray of dill-like fronds. The bulb has celery’s crunchy juiciness, and both the bulb and the fronds have a refreshing, mild licorice-like flavor.
The versatile bulb can be shaved into salads or sandwich fillings, where it plays nicely with greens, fruit, nuts or mild-tasting proteins from chicken to tuna. You can also steam it, stir-fry it, grill it or separate the individual stems and stuff them. The fronds make a fine herbal garnish for salads, quiches, fish or poultry.
It’s not as visible to the casual observer as robins and daffodils, but the great undersea world has its own seasonal rhythms. In springtime many species of seafood begin massive migrations or spawning “runs,” and this is when you’re most likely to find them at your local seafood counter. One of those species is mackerel, an often underappreciated fish.
Mackerel’s rich, pale flesh is filled with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s flavorful enough to stand up to the boldest of preparation methods. Try it grilled, or lightly floured and then pan-seared in a hot skillet until crisp on both sides. Serve it with wedges of lemon or lime to counter its richness, or prepare it Spanish “escabeche” style with an acidic marinade.
Radishes are among the first seasonal vegetables, going from seed to harvest in a few short weeks. The most familiar variety is small, red and round, but you’ll also find them in other shapes and colors at good markets.
Whichever variety you opt for, they’ll bring a juicy crunch and mild, bright, peppery flavor to your table. Slice them into rounds or julienne strips and add them to your favorite salads and stir-fries, or set out a plate of whole or halved radishes as a simple accompaniment to light meals.
Turnips are the springtime counterpart to autumn’s rutabagas, which in fact are closely related. Turnips are white inside and have a peppery bite that’s reminiscent of radishes, another close cousin. If possible, buy them in bunches as baby turnips with the greens attached. It gives you the equivalent of two vegetables in one.
The leaves are flavorful as cooked greens, a simple side dish suitable for almost any meal. The roots can be used raw in salads, served as a boiled or steamed side vegetable or cut up into slivers for stir-frying. If you have more than you can use in the short term, they can be pickled for use through the summer and autumn.
Plums are one of the first seasonal fruits of the year, and they’re one of the most varied. You’ll see them in colors ranging from yellow, green and red to almost black, and in textures from dry and firm to crisp and juicy.
Embrace their versatility by trying new plums as each variety appears in your local markets. Some are best eaten fresh, like the small golden varieties, but most others can be used in multiple ways. Italian-style or “prune” plums are excellent for baking as well as drying, and big, fleshy red or black plums can be sliced for tarts and pies. For something completely different, grill halved plums to bring out their rich flavor and serve them as a garnish on thick pork chops.
Lettuces and Baby Greens
There’s a reason why mixtures of tiny, beautiful lettuces and other greens are called “spring mix.” This is the time of year when growers begin to harvest new crops of field-grown greens, from immature chard and beet tops to baby spinach and countless varieties of lettuce.
These are among the most perishable items of produce, so don’t even try to make them last. Instead, follow the ancient tradition of enjoying seasonal foods to the hilt while they last. Serve the baby greens with light, fresh-flavored vinaigrettes that won’t overpower their delicate flavors or weigh down their tiny leaves, and enjoy them alongside every meal until they’re gone.
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