Eating Out: Big taste and health for spring vegetables

Sweet onions, green onions, garlic, chives and ramps jump into soups and onto salads to help awaken taste buds from their winter comfort food slumber.

What’s a ramp? Southern chefs certainly know and get pretty excited when these bright green wild onions with an assertive, garlicky flavor spring from the ground. Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, a James Beard Award nominee as the South's best chef, ramps up the taste of pan-roasted flounder with wild watercress, ramps and lemon vinaigrette, and he serves a zingy ramp vinaigrette with soft shell crabs.

All members of the allium family of vegetables -- onions, leeks, ramps and garlic -- bring health to the table, too. Their strong aromas signal antioxidants and sulfur compounds are present that are associated with disease prevention and cell repair. Talk about springing into action.

Bold taste and nutrition

Other powerful players garnering gourmet attention are vegetables from the brassica family, especially kale, which is moving into a spring fashion format after a winter run of popularity as crunchy kale chips and braised kale. At the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, chef Frank Stitt’s fresh kale even showed up at the bar as guests enjoyed cocktails with soft shell crab and deep green kale slaw.

Dietitian Kathleen Zelman, the nutrition director for WebMD, called kale “one of the healthiest vegetables on the planet."

"One cup of kale contains only 36 calories and provides 5 grams of fiber and 15 percent of your daily requirement of calcium and vitamin B6, 180 percent of vitamin A, 200 percent of vitamin C and over 1,000 percent of vitamin K," Zelman said. "Move over, Popeye!”

Sometimes you have to be a little bold to get the bolder vegetables. Mark McQueen of Atlanta looked around the room at Canton Cooks in Sandy Springs and noticed that Asian families knew to ask for Chinese broccoli instead of the regular stuff automatically served with dishes like beef and broccoli.

“So I decided to get the Chinese broccoli with my lunch," McQueen said. "It’s a bit bitter but tastes super fresh, and it was a real bright green. I liked it.”

Chinese broccoli and broccoli rabe, often served in Italian restaurants, are more closely related to mustard greens than broccoli. Their bite is bold, and they are  excellent sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and the healthy plant nutrient called lutein, which is associated with eye health.

Chinese broccoli, broccoli rabe and rappini can be steamed, stir-fried, sauteed or braised, and I bet they make a really good slaw.

Carolyn O'Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!" Email her

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