Chef Robbie Wilson's dish is as wondrously light and colorful as the season itself.

When spring produce starts to peak, it's time for a lighter touch. Winter's rich braises and hearty roasts give way to delicate dishes celebrating fresh abundance.

"Spring is visually a beautiful season for food, and it's the sweetest time of the year," says chef Robbie Wilson of Bird Dog in Palo Alto, California. Ingredients such as fresh baby beets and green peas perfectly highlight exactly what Wilson loves about cooking right now.

"When they first come into season, peas and beets have done all the work for us," he says. The sweet peas don't even need to be cooked. Served raw, they're both lightly crunchy and naturally tender, and their sugars haven't yet turned to starch. "I like vegetables you don't even have to cook too much. There's energy in that pea, and the longer you cook it, the more energy you lose. I try to respect the integrity of the ingredients."

Wilson says because the main components of the salad skew slightly sweet, he achieves flavor balance from both technique and supporting ingredients. He roasts the beets until just tender, which heightens their sweetness while preserving a little of their acidity. At Bird Dog, he fills out the dish with Lollo Rosso lettuce, a crisp and curly red-leafed variety with light bitterness. The citrus dressing is tinged with grapefruit juice for a little more tartness, while snipped fresh herbs add alluring fragrance. And a few dollops of fresh ricotta gild this spring lily (we use the Cooking Light microwave method for fresh ricotta here, but if you're looking to splurge a little, try the artisanal ricotta featured at the bottom right corner of this page).

"What I love about dishes like this is that you can taste the season," Wilson says. Try his original version of the salad this month at Bird Dog in downtown Palo Alto.

Spring Beet and Pea SaladHands-on: 17 min. Total: 1 hr. 57 min.

Wilson suggests using your best olive oil to indulge both your veggies and your palate.

3 baby red beets, roots and stems removed3 baby yellow beets, roots and stems removed1 cup 2% reduced-fat milk1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt1 teaspoon cider vinegar2 blood oranges2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice1 teaspoon Dijon mustard1 teaspoon honey1/4 teaspoon kosher salt3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil8 cups torn curly-leaf lettuce1/3 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves1/3 cup small fresh mint leaves1/3 cup chopped fresh chives3/4 cup shelled fresh or frozen green peas, thawed

1. Preheat oven to 375°.

2. Wrap red beets loosely in foil. Wrap yellow beets loosely in foil. Place both packages in a roasting pan; roast at 375° for 45 minutes or until just tender. Cool completely. Peel beets, and cut into quarters; set aside.

3. Combine milk, yogurt, and vinegar in a microwave-safe liquid measuring cup; microwave at HIGH for 3 minutes. Stir to form small curds. Strain through a sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth; let stand 5 minutes. Discard liquid. Set cheese mixture aside.

4. Peel and section oranges over a bowl; squeeze membranes to extract juice. Set sections aside; reserve 2 tablespoons juice. Discard membranes.

5. Combine blood orange juice, grapefruit juice, mustard, honey, and salt in a small bowl. Slowly pour in olive oil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Place half of juice mixture in a small bowl. Add yellow beets; toss well to coat. Divide yellow beets evenly among 6 small plates. Add red beets to bowl; toss well to coat. Divide red beets and orange sections among the plates.

6. Place remaining juice mixture in a large bowl. Add lettuce and herbs to bowl; toss well to coat. Place about 3/4 cup lettuce mixture on each plate. Place about 1 tablespoon cheese mixture on each serving. Sprinkle each serving with 2 tablespoons peas.

SERVES 6CALORIES 155; FAT 8.6g (sat 1.9g, mono 5.4g, poly 0.9g); PROTEIN 6g; CARB 15g; FIBER 4g; SUGARS 9g (est. added sugars 0g); CHOL 6mg; IRON 2mg; SODIUM 221mg; CALC 118mg

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