What to Eat This Spring: An Interview with Hudson Valley's Fare Lady

05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After months of slushy streets, heavy stews, and stubborn colds, I was feeling more than ready to talk about a fresh new season when I called up Laura Pensiero, nutritionist and author of the recently published Hudson Valley Mediterranean. She also happens to own the popular restaurants Gigi Trattoria and Gigi Market in New York's Hudson Valley, and is the chef behind Just Salad. If anyone could offer advice on what to cook this spring, it would be Pensiero. In her book, she dishes on flavorful farm-sourced food and gives tips on how each recipe can be healthful and economical--while keeping our carbon footprint light.

HP: What comes to mind when you think of Spring?

Garden, peas, asparagus, new season, renewal.

HP: What should people look forward to cooking now that winter is over?

I'm so ready to give winter the boot and welcome in lighter fare: fava beans with a sharp cheese, shitake mushrooms, arugula and spinach from Sky Farm in Millerton, asparagus pesto with linguini. It will be nice to move away from root veggies and towards fresh green produce. I'm looking forward to open house entertaining season. One appetizer that's delicious and super easy to make is sweet pea guacamole with crostini or pita chips. Or for a salad, I like to use a low fat pea-tarragon dressing.

HP: At an outdoor picnic or garden party, what seasonal, healthy drink would you recommend serving--to help wean us off the Diet Coke?

Light sparkling stuff, with a splash of fruit. A dash of fresh citrus for cocktails, like a red grapefruit or fresh squeezed lime. Currants grow locally. Berries are in season. Think of something refreshing like homemade lemonade. And as I mention in Mediterranean Hudson Valley, in addition to packing a punch of Vitamin C, the fruit's zest contains limonoids, which is considered to be an anticarcinogen that can fight many types of cancer.

HP: How does the environment factor into your busy, food-driven life?

Environmental issues are definitely an influence on the way I approach my work. Our first choice at Gigi is local quality within our means, and I do look at it as a public health issue. My goal is to bring great flavors to the plate, and when that involves local and seasonal food, you tend to get people eating better--benefiting their bodies and the planet. I always encourage folks to enjoy the fresh ingredients in season, that way you get the best quality product. Keep dishes simple. Don't mask the real flavors. You'll find yourself loving the most unexpected things. You'll say, 'Wow, this rutabaga soufflé is amazing!'

HP: Your restaurant is just a 45-minute train ride north of midtown Manhattan. What are some of your favorite food spots in that part of the Hudson Valley?

In Kingston, there is a place called Elephant where a husband and wife team turns out fantastic tapas, and they don't even have a full kitchen. In Red Hook, I suggest Flat Iron, a great steak place also run by a couple, Jessica and Craig. For sushi lovers, go to Osaka in Tivoli, near Bard College.

HP: What about non-food places?

Near the Rhinebeck train station is Blue Cashew, a great shop for kitchenware. And the Hammertown Barn has lots of home goods and elegant rustic furnishings. Fisher Center, the performing arts center designed by Frank Gehry, has wonderful programs and is very influential in the arts community up here.

HP: Now that the weather is moving into the 50s and 60s, are there any Hudson Valley bike routes you'd recommend?

From the Rhinecliff train station, it's a half hour bike ride to Gigi Market at Greig Farm. It's a beautiful tree-lined ride, you'll wind past estates and orchards as you head over River Road, crossing Rte. 9-G, following the dot signs to Gigi.

HP: Some last tips for eating sustainably?

The key is being flexible and adaptive about what's being grown at the moment. Again for spring, serve baby potatoes, fruits, rhubarb, a strawberry balsamic BBQ sauce on pork tenderloin or chicken, or a risotto, radishes, baby peas, flowering chives. Go to the farmers markets instead of the supermarket, where food has already traveled an average of 1,500 miles after it's harvested. Get with the season. Produce foods in your own garden if you can.

Try three of Laura Pensiero's favorite spring recipes from Hudson Valley Mediterranean

Asparagus Pesto Linguine