Equinox Alert

Spring is here, and the city's farmers markets are brimming with fecund, fragrant, Technicolor abondanza: needle-thin asparagus fresh from the Delta; stalks of Pescadero rhubarb and Half Moon Bay snap peas; a dazzling array of Watsonville basil; loquats and fava beans and haricots vert from the Central Valley; the cantaloupe, avocados and Valencia oranges of the south; Sebastopol currants and Santa Rosa zucchini fresh as a Wine Country sunrise.

So what does one do with all this sustainably farmed opulence? Start things off with a couple of avocados that give just a little when you press into their skins. Mash them up with a seeded, chopped up tomato, half a chopped onion, two canned green chilies (also chopped up), the juice of half a lime, some minced cilantro and salt to your taste for the best guacamole around. Serve with chips and cerveza on the fire escape just about the time the sun disappears behind the treetops.

El Raigon, the Argentine steak house in North Beach, serves the tastiest asparagus in town. The kitchen procures the greenest, slenderest A. officianalis available, bastes the stalks with a subtly tangy marinade and grills them over the same glowing wood and charcoal that enhances their bife de chorizo. The result is a glistening pyramid of crisp, lightly charred flora sweet and fragrant with woodsmoke and its own uniquely pungent essence. Prepare them yourself on the barbecue with a simple olive oil-based marinade that won't detract from the vegetable's fresh, pure flavor.

Basil's delicious just about anytime, and the more intense flavor of the purple variety is ideal for adding a little zip (both culinary and aesthetic) to subtly flavored salads and other cold dishes. A favorite picnic item that makes good use of this noble herb is grilled salmon salad. Brush two thick salmon steaks with melted butter and broil 15 minutes or so until firm, turning two or three times. Cool, cut into chunks, toss with the tiniest cherry tomatoes, some grated onion, chopped sweet peppers of various shades, lemon juice and rich olive oil, salt and pepper and as much shredded purple basil as you please. Pack into a hollowed-out loaf of sourdough, schlep to the park and enjoy with a bottle of something cool and bracing.

Rhubarb is the quintessential springtime treat, and its fresh, tart flavor is best set off in a buttery piecrust. Cook a pound of chopped rhubarb with melted butter and 3/4 cup of sugar in a covered saucepan until barely tender, 10 minutes or so. Drain the rhubarb over a bowl, set aside to cool and return the juices to the pan. Boil the juices down to about half a cup. Fold together one part lemon curd and one part whipped cream, pour into a baked, cooled pastry shell, top with the cooled rhubarb and drizzle the reduced juices on top. Devour. It's a marvelous climax to any sun-kissed, freshly plucked, springtime banquet.

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