What to Eat Now: May
May flowers have finally arrived, and spring is in full swing. Here's how to enjoy the season’s tender spinach, strawberries, arugula, pineapple, and delicate new green beans.
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May brings with it the full bloom of spring’s delicate new fruits and veggies: The farmers' markets are awash in color, and a riot of new flavors and textures floods the stalls. Towards the end of the month, strawberries explode onto the scene and arugula rockets in with its peppery punch. In Hawaii, pineapple is beginning its harvest, and while spinach in a bag has become ubiquitous, it’s worth it to seek out the first tender baby spinach in an open-air market. The hot flush of summer is still at bay; now's the time to get cooking with spring’s sweetest offerings.
Spinach gets around: According to ancient texts, the leafy green got its start in Persia (where its wild cousins still grow), then traveled to China in the seventh century as a gift for the Emperor. While its cultivation in the U.S. began in the early 19th century, it didn’t become an American favorite until 1929 when Popeye inspired kids everywhere to gobble up the leafy green to grow big and strong — and it’s still a national favorite.
Accept No Substitutes
There are many dark, leafy greens that get called spinach with varying degrees of accuracy, but there are really three types: Savoy, which has crinkly, curly dark green leaves; New Zealand, which has flat, smooth, spade-shaped leaves and a milder taste; and Semi-Savoy, which has slightly curly leaves and a gentler texture.
Spring is the time to lug out the salad spinner and embrace the more delicate and flavorful leaves as the season begins; spinach is way less bitter in May when it contains lower amounts of oxalic acid. Storing spinach is as simple as putting it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, then washing it just before use. It’s a nutritional powerhouse with plenty of vitamins A, C, and K, and a good source of iron. Don’t be afraid to buy in bulk, especially if you’re planning to cook it: Spinach reduces to about a tenth of its volume once heat is applied!
The strawberry, a member of the rose family whose name was inspired by the “straying” nature of the plant, is usually the first to ripen in the spring. It's also the only fruit whose seeds can be found on the outside — there are an average of 200 seeds on each fruit!
America’s favorite berry is cultivated in more places than any other fruit: across continents in sunny meadows, high up on mountain slopes and down in sand dunes by the sea, in both untamed forests and carefully planted backyards. A few wild varieties still remain; these prized, small fruits command high prices at farmers' markets and are worth the indulgence. Everyone, it seems, loves a strawberry.
Sweet or Savory, Fresh or Cooked
Strawberries usually show up in sweet preparations, but occasionally shine in savory dishes too: Check out the luscious strawberry risotto below, a traditional springtime dish in southern Italy. They also freeze exceptionally well — a small effort far outweighed by the joy of a strawberry cake made in mid-winter when the dark and cold is just too much. Their versatility makes them sing in beverages too, with a natural pink pop that enhances any party or brunch.
Harvesting and Storage
It’s best to pick perfectly ripe strawberries in the cool of the morning or as evening approaches — the midday heat of the sun makes them softer and quicker to perish. Store uncovered, unwashed strawberries in the refrigerator for a few days, then hull (take the green stem and leaves out) and rinse before eating. To freeze strawberries, rinse, drain, and hull the berries, then place on a paper towel-lined baking sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, store in freezer bags for up to a year (learn more about freezing food here).
Pineapple is primarily grown in Hawaii and Malaysia, and comes into season towards the end of May. It first grew wild in the Brazilian lowlands, but the evolution into its modern-day form is still a botanical mystery. We do know Columbus brought the crown of the fruit back to Spain where it was successfully regrown — something you can also do at home today. In most languages around the world, it goes by the Brazilian Tupi Indian root word of “nana” or “anana”, meaning “excellent fruit,” as opposed to the English “pineapple” which was inspired by its tessellated resemblance to the pine cone.
In America it first became a symbol of hospitality during colonial times, though it wasn’t cultivated commercially in Hawaii until the 1700s.
How to Choose a Pineapple
There are two varieties widely available in the U.S.: the Cayenne (which despite its name, isn’t spicy) and the Red Spanish, found mostly on the East Coast. Choose ripe pineapples that are slightly soft to the touch, with a delicate (not fermenting) scent, very little green skin, and a brown spot at the bottom that yields slightly to gentle pressure. A leaf tugged at the crown of a fully ripe pineapple should come away somewhat easily.
According to Hawaiian lore, the bottom of the pineapple is sweeter than the top, so after cutting away the tough exterior it can be better to slice it into rings rather than spears.
Beware the Bromelain
A fresh pineapple contains lots of the enzyme bromelain, which breaks down protein in a powerful way — cannery and plantation workers have to wear rubber gloves so their hands don’t get eroded. For this reason, it's not advisable to use fresh pineapple or its juice in lengthy marinades — it won’t flavor the meat so much as make it fall apart! For this use only, canned fruit and juice are actually the better choice, as the preservation process breaks down the bromelain.
Also called “snap beans” for the bright sound they make when broken in two or “string beans” for the annoying fibrous string that lines the pod (and which has been mostly bred out of commercial varieties), green beans come in myriad varieties. Yellow wax beans are fairly common, but there are also many older varieties to look for, such as the bigger (and more ubiquitous) Blue Lake, pale gold Soleil, and the exotic looking Purple Tepee that turns green when cooked. The French call green beans “haricot vert” — while often marketed as a unique varietal, they’re simply younger green beans picked before they become larger and tougher.
The Three Sisters
Green beans and other pole beans are indigenous to the Americas and were first cultivated about 5,000 years ago. Along with squash and corn they make up the “three sisters,” as some Native American tribes referred to them. They not only taste great together, but also grow well as a group, with each plant replacing some of what the others take from the soil.
Green beans can be picked at any stage, but young, tender beans have the most delicate taste and crispest snap. Grocery store varieties can be tough and bland; green beans truly shine at farmers' markets and in backyard plots, where they’re nearly ornamental when grown in a pot.
Green beans are a versatile ingredient, starring in side dishes and curries, and making perfect pickles for Bloody Marys, Micheladas, or just eating straight out of the jar.
Spicy arugula has become a popular salad green in modern-day Europe and the U.S. for both its unique flavor and nutritional value: It’s rich in iron and vitamins A and C. While ancient lettuces were eaten at the end of a Roman meal because of their slightly narcotic qualities, modern arugula has the opposite impact: This Italian green packs a peppery punch, with a tinge of mustard flavor and an edge of bitterness that's guaranteed to wake up your taste buds. Wild varieties have an even bolder, spicier flavor, so be sure to taste a leaf first if you’re lucky enough to score some at the market.
Storage and Use
When bought fresh at the farmer's market, arugula can last for up to five days if kept refrigerated in a plastic bag. Rinse thoroughly right before preparing — the leaves and any attached roots can hold onto a lot of grit.
Arugula lends itself to a wide range of uses: served in simple salads with shaved Parmesan, stirred into soups as a bright wilted green, or tossed fresh with hot pasta right before serving. It also makes a fresh, astringent topping for fashionable pizzas.
Hungry for more?
Check out other articles in our monthly fresh produce series.