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Finding the flavors of spring

The earth has begun to warm after a cold, dark rest, and the air has lost its winter edge. In nearby woodlands, slumbering morels have been nudged into growth by the gentle April mists, while along fertile river basins thick-piled carpets of wild onions have begun to spread.

In my own garden, clumps of chives, bright green and lush, are appearing in places they never were before, threatening to invade the rutted path my wheelbarrow formed last summer from countless trips between the tomato plot and the back gate.

Not that these new chives are in jeopardy of being removed in the name of tidiness. I love the way they ramble and spread at will each spring, popping up to give life to a particularly dull corner of the garden. Indeed, if there is order to the universe, then surely chives were put on earth for a higher purpose than mere sustenance.

Would spring really be as joyful if there were no chive blossoms to be enjoyed? It's more than chance that these lovely green stalks poke through the winter-ravaged ground when they do, reassuring us that water slides, concerts in the park and ice cream on a stick can't be far behind.

Not that fields of electric-blue bearded irises and tipsy tulips aren't equal harbingers of the season. But the chives are a symbol you can sink your teeth — and soul — into.

Typically, the onion is thought of as a hearty, tear-inciting gorilla of a vegetable, potent enough to stand up to the mightiest salsa one can devise and, therefore, risky to use. But in spring, the onions come on softly: My delicate chives, juicy sweet onions, green garlic and exquisitely hued bunch onions.

Green onions are the backbone of my hot and sour soup, strong on bean curd and completely lacking in bamboo shoots. The green onions' mellow-yet-oniony flavor lifts the broth from commonplace to quite extrordinary. In late spring, once they begin showing up in my local farmers' market, I substitute the plumper, slightly heartier-flavored bunch onion for the simple green onion. The texture is a bit coarser, but the soup can certainly stand the variation.

The accompanying recipe for composed salad uses green garlic, which is regular garlic at an early phase, plucked from the ground before the root end has had a chance to develop into a bulb. When you encounter it at your farmers' market (your best place to locate it this spring), it will look like young leeks, the foliage flat and long and the bulb ends relatively straight. If you cut a cross section through the base near the root end, you'll see the internal pattern hinting at the cloves beginning to form. Its flavor is relatively mild, with a hint of garlic and suggestion of peppery fire.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can e-mail her at janrd@proaxis.com.

Hot and Sour Soup

7 cups homemade or canned chicken broth

1/2 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce (or Kikkoman's Tempura Sauce)

1 to 2 teaspoons chili-garlic paste

Dash of sesame oil (about 1/8 teaspoon)

1 cup chopped green onions or bunch onions (all the white and half the green portions of about 6 green onions or 4 bunch onions)

1 (1-pound) block of firm tofu, drained well and sliced into 1/2-inch by 1/4-inch thick julienne strips

10 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted and sliced into thin shreds (see note)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

In a large pot, combine the broth, vinegar, soy sauce, chili-garlic paste, sesame oil, green onions, tofu and mushrooms. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the temperature to medium-low, and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 15 minutes to give the flavors a chance to merge and develop. Adjust the seasonings, adding additional vinegar or soy sauce, if desired.

Just before serving, bring the soup back to a slow boil. While stirring the soup, slowly drizzle in the beaten eggs in a steady stream. They will cook quite quickly in the hot broth and blossom out into feathery strips and bits. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

NOTE: To reconstitute dried mushrooms, place them in a deep bowl, cover with boiling water and let sit about 30 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft and pliable. To keep the mushrooms submerged as they reconstitute, place a saucer or plate on top and weigh it with a heavy object, such as a can or a coffee mug.

Grilled Chicken Salad with Green Garlic Mayonnaise

4 boneless and skinless chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 green garlic stalks

11/2 cups good-quality mayonnaise (such as Best Foods)

2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch-long, pencil-thin strips

1/2 cup chopped green onions (or bunch onion), white and pale green portions

6 cups mixed salad greens (including several leafy varieties, a bit of crunchy hearts of Romaine, and some baby arugula), torn into bite-size pieces

1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rings

1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rings

White balsamic vinegar, to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

Season each chicken breast on both sides with salt and pepper, then grill over hot coals until done, or broil, turning once.

When chicken is cool enough to handle, cut into 1/2-inch chunks. This can be done up to 48 hours ahead. Cover chicken and store it in the refrigerator.

Trim away root and most of green portion from the green garlic stalks, then place garlic in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse to chop fine. Add the mayonnaise and continue processing to mix.

Combine cooled chicken (with juices) and prepared mayonnaise with the celery and green onions. To serve, arrange the salad greens equally on 4 plates. Arrange the bell pepper slices on top of the greens, then drizzle the vinegar and olive oil over each portion. Lightly salt and pepper each salad. Finally, spoon one-quarter of the chicken salad mixture onto each salad. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.