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Get seasonal: 12 Canadian chefs and their favourite spring ingredients

Canadians go a little wild in springtime, but perhaps no one is more excited by the return of fresh, young, local things than tuber-weary chefs. We asked the most devoted locavores to tell us what puts the spring back into their step – and menus. The take-away for home cooks? Spring treasures are best enjoyed simply cooked – raw if possible – and judiciously adorned. Ditch the heavy cream sauces and slow roasting and reach for bright, vibrant flavours: A splash of B.C. riesling, local cold-pressed canola oil and a drizzle of Niagara verjus.

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FAVA BEANS: “My favourite spring dish is vignole, a Roman vegetable stew with spring artichokes, peas, chard and fava beans, my favourite single ingredient. I like to fully pod the fava so you are left with just the buttery, delicate bean. In the restaurant, I serve them tossed with a little lemon, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and a grilled piece of bread. Maybe a piece of soft pecorino on the side.” – Daniel Costa, Corso 32, Edmonton

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RHUBARB: Spring provides relief for the apple-apoplectic pastry chef. “I love rhubarb! My favourite is hothouse – it’s on my menu right now – because of its vibrant pink colour. I don’t find it necessary to do too much to it. I usually roast it with a little sugar, then pair it with say, a yogurt mousse and poppy-seed crisp or a pistachio meringue and ginger-beer sorbet.” – Lindsay Haddock, Scaramouche Restaurant, Toronto

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WHITE ASPARAGUS: White asparagus, which is grown underground, is even more fleeting – and subtler in flavour – than green. “Local white asparagus is only available four weeks a year so they are a real treasure in spring. We serve them many ways because they are stocky, juicy, and so tender. After a long winter serving root vegetables, spring is when we have access to young, fresh vegetables. For me, it’s synonymous with growth, new life and vitality.” – Normand Laprise, Toqué!, Montreal

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TROUT LILY LEAVES: If you’ve ever tramped through the woods of eastern North America in spring and early summer, no doubt you’ve seen (and probably stepped on) this tender, slightly sweet, treat. The wildflower grows in abundance around chef Michael Stadtlander’s farm. “I like trout lily leaves because, like dandelion and wild leeks, they are some of the first things up in the spring. I like to use them in a salad; trout lily and dandelion leaves with some finely chopped wild leeks and a simple dressing of wild leeks, maple syrup, Ontario apple-cider vinegar and sunflower oil.” – Michael Stadtlander, Haisai Restaurant and Bakery, Singhampton, Ont.

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SPOT PRAWNS: “Last year I fell in love with spot prawns – local spot prawns are amazingly sweet and pure. They’re the heartbeat of Vancouver’s culinary scene in the spring.” Look for fresh or frozen spot prawns at better fishmongers across Canada. Be prepared to pay a little more, but also be prepared to taste what shrimp was meant to taste like. They’re nothing like the ubiquitous muddy, farmed, tiger shrimp. – Pedro Gonzalez, Coast Restaurant, Vancouver

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FIDDLEHEADS: The spring run of shad in the Saint John River coincides with fiddlehead season here in New Brunswick, so it’s a traditional dish in our area – shad and boiled fiddleheads. We chefs get really excited about the shad roe, crusted in corn meal and fried in butter, paired up with a big plate of foraged fiddleheads, and a few hoppy beers.” Unless you call one of the Maritime provinces home, a shad fry-up may not be in your dinner plans, but fiddleheads grow all across North America. Raw, they’re very grassy (and toxic), but blanched, lightly sautéed and tossed with a vinaigrette, or puréed into a soup, they’re delicious and can be used in any of the ways you might use spinach or asparagus. Jesse Vergen, Saint John Ale House, Saint John

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LOBSTER: “For me, late spring brings the start of the PEI lobster season – May 1 to June 30 – when the lobster is amazing and rich. At home, the first lobster feed of the season is simple boiled lobster dipped in butter, the perfect way to honour such a beautiful ingredient. For the restaurant, I enjoy preparing my lobster slowly heated in a rich butter sauce and served with braised confit pork belly. The plate is super rich, but pork belly plays well with lobster.” – Domenic Serio, The Inn at Bay Fortune, Bay Fortune, PEI

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SPRING PEAS: Manitoba winters can be hard, so we’re not surprised that a Winnipeg chef goes a little gaga for fresh veggies. “I am psyched about heirloom tomatoes; got a guy outside the city who produces some of the best tomatoes I have ever tasted – like candy. That and peas. Real peas, Not frozen. My dishwasher hates peas – all the husking and cleaning and so forth – but I love them with butter, bacon, black truffle, beside a young chicken.” When local, spring peas are available in the pod, all they need is shucking, blanching and a healthy buttering. – Scott Bagshaw, Deseo Bistro, Winnipeg, www.deseobistro.com

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HALIBUT: “For me, it’s always about sustainable seafood. Halibut and black cod are something that I always look forward to in the springtime. Lately we have been preparing the halibut sous-vide with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and tarragon at 51C for 20 minutes. Then we sear the skin and serve on a bed of chilled potato salad with shaved fennel. The black cod is pan-roasted to bring out the sweetness and served on Jerusalem artichoke purée with wild mushrooms and fiddleheads and veal reduction drizzled around sparingly.”

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MATANE SHRIMP: “Much of our produce comes from the hotel’s organic garden and rooftop garden. Right now, I’m working with lovage, seaweed, wild garlic, fiddleheads and edible flowers and, from the water, Lake Saint-Pierre walleye, snow crab, crawfish and the tiny Matane shrimp, which I serve raw with wild garlic, croutons, asparagus and seaweed.” This tiny critter is what you might call a “cocktail shrimp” (less than one bite!) and is sweet and tender. Because they are so small, they’re easy to overcook: 30 seconds should do it. – Julien Dumas, Auberge Saint-Antoine, Quebec City

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POTATOES: When it’s springtime in the Rockies an Indian chef’s heart turns to … potatoes? “I love potatoes in spring. I love the earthiness and different kinds. Fingerling potatoes are so good! I just love slightly roasting them with garlic and fresh herbs from the gardens.” In spring, when potatoes are tiny and new, forget heavy, creamy mashing. A great potato paired with good olive oil and fresh herbs is a beautiful thing. And remember, potatoes this fresh and new have very thin skins; no need to peel, saving time and nutritional value. Vikram Vij, Vij’s, Vancouver, www.vijs.ca

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RAMPS: Ramps, with their subtle onion flavour, are the harbingers of spring at Ottawa vegan local Zen Kitchen. “I love pickling them; that way I can enjoy them all year long, but my customers wait for my tweets about fresh ramps. I serve a herb gnocchi with ramps and fiddleheads, just lightly sautéed in olive oil.” Ramps (or wild leeks) can be pulled or cut; at the market you might find the bulbs attached or just the green leaves. Let them be the star of the dish; serve with rice, potatoes or a delicate white fish. – Kyle Mortimer-Proulx, Zen Kitchen, Ottawa

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