fruits and vegetables
Total Ramp tart. Similar to quiche, but with with less custard, more ramp (and crisper crust).
Having recently worried around at the ethical questions attendant on promoting wild foods to all and sundry, I offer this post with mixed emotions.
On the one hand, Have Ramps Will Cook. We are lucky enough to have access to several large patches; the spirit of experiment springs eternal and besides, people have been asking.
On the other hand, providing recipes is – I hope! – an invitation to use those recipes, so there we are with the ethics again, along with another reservation,
Or not to find ramps – that is the question. More accurately, since simply finding them is fine, should one or should one not harvest them and if the answer is “Yes, they’re delicious!” at what point, if any, does the answer become “No, they’re endangered!” or again more accurately (and the reason for all this dithering), “No, they’re in danger of becoming endangered if people keep picking them at the current rate.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum) at home in typical habitat
We regularly hunt for and pick them, trying to be responsible about it. We frequently cook and eat them in season, trying not to be too piggy about it. And I, at least, have two sub-questions:
- Is the worry about over-harvesting* justified? And
- Is it possible to formulate a general rule for the ethical enjoyment of foraged wild foods?
Dear Mr. President, how about these? (Clockwise from top: Winesap, Pink Lady, Stayman
The President’s office has had the requisite makeover, pictures in the NY Post, story in the NY Times, reviews galore all over the net. Expect I’m not alone in agreeing with just about all of them, including both the snarky – it looks like a business hotel; the rug is a tad obvious – and the sympathetic: it looks restrained and comfortable and anyway he can’t do anything too stylish when there’s a recession on.
He also can’t do anything even remotely interesting or he’ll just exacerbate the out-of-touch-with-regular-folks problem. But that’s neither here nor there. What I want to know is “what kind of apples are in that bowl of same gracing (if that’s the word) the jazzy new coffee table?”
The season is brief. Ramps are increasingly endangered and so to be enjoyed in mindful moderation. Generally, the only recipe you need is “sauté in butter; eat (with or without eggs and/or pasta or toast points and maybe some ricotta).”
Or you can coat them with olive oil and put them on the grill. But Bill has found several patches so vast that even very modest gathering has put us in ramp heaven.
Must be spring - but not for much longer
And as we are also swimming in asparagus, winecaps and morels…
I have now made Pasta with Asparagus and Ramp Hollandaise; Ramp-wrapped Meatloaf; Ramp, Winecap and Ricotta Stuffed Ramp-Wrapped Sole and some quite spiffy Roasted Ramps with Morels and New Potatoes.
Forager Bill meets Gardener Bill in this post about about lambsquarter, one of the all-time great greens. It tastes wonderful (like a cross between asparagus and spinach); it’s easy to prepare and cook; it’s good for you – the usual dark green “high in vitamins and minerals, low in calories” – and as a major bonus, it not only plants itself, it starts so early and grows so fast that you can harvest multiple crops and still have time to plant tomatoes, corn, squash, beans or whatever in the very same ground.
Not in the back yard, actually. They’re in the utility area behind the back yard, about 20 feet from the compost heap. The little patch is no more than 30 inches from the path, but it hid in plain sight until a couple of years ago, when Bill the forager added ramps to his must-find collection.
Each year he spends more time tracking them down and eating them up, and now he’s written a guest post guide to them. All I can say is buckle your reading glasses – major ramp treatise ahead.
One thing I love about plants is the way they tie the world together, stitching continents and time in an ever-changing tapestry of free association. Eric puts up a post on Cyathea cooperi, a tropical tree fern so unfriendly its keepers need hazmat suits to move it, and next thing you know, in comes a question from Louisa about fiddleheads, the delicious baby fronds of the circumboreal ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris.
This foragers’ favorite doesn’t appear until mid-spring, roughly in synch with the morels, but it’s never too early to get ready for collecting.
Pasta with fiddleheads, morels and garlic chives
Over the years, we’ve grown at least a dozen kinds of strawberries, mostly standard garden varieties (Fragaria x ananassa) like Sparkle and Tristar, and so-called “wild” strawberries, aka fraises de bois and alpine strawberries (F. vesca), like these Mignonettes being used as an edging in the lower garden.
Cultivated strawberries are easy to grow, almost always tasty and sometimes very tasty. But none of them – yet; I keep trying – are as good as genuinely wild strawberries (F. virginiana), the intensely flavorful, amazingly aromatic gift that grows freely in woodland edges all over the northeast and beyond.
Here we go again; it never fails. On the news just yesterday morning – “asparagus is the first vegetable of spring.”
NO! dammit. Dandelions are the first vegetable of spring, or rather they are the first green vegetable. Parsnips that have overwintered (” spring dugs”) are even earlier, but by spring one has had enough roots for a while no matter how sweet they may be.
What dandelions are: delicious. Tender and fresh-tasting, with a pleasantly bitter endive edge and an earthy greenness that has no analogy. They’re low in calories, high in vitamin A , lutein and beta-carotene – look out carrots, you’ve got competition – and absolutely free.
What dandelions are not: instant. On account of the picking and cleaning. But picking is pleasant, a good chance to get outside, and a great activity to share with kids; anybody over about 3 knows what a dandelion looks like. And cleaning goes fairly quickly if you use the greens washing trick that works for anything wrinkled and sandy.
Cooking takes about 5 minutes, so once you’ve got cleaned greens you’ve got fast food.
Greens must be gathered before the flower bud starts pushing up or they will be tough and unpleasantly bitter. Greens from shady places (left) are usually wider, flatter, and milder than greens grown in full sun (right)
Mediterranean Dandelions with olive oil, garlic and lemon.
Fine hot or cold as a vegetable dish, easily expanded into Dandelions with Pasta and Prosciutto, a one-dish supper for spring. Measurements are given mostly for the form of the thing. Please for the love of heaven don’t bother to follow them to the letter.
For 4 servings:
a basketball-sized heap of cleaned dandelion greens, well drained but not dried:
¼ cup olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice; about half a lemon if it’s a decent lemon
salt to taste
Heat the oil in a wide sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sizzle until pale gold. Add greens, standing back to avoid the spatter when water hits the hot oil. Stir, cover, turn heat to medium low. Cook about a minute, stir again, recover and cook 2 or 3 minutes more. As soon as they’re all wilted, they’re done.
Dandelions with Pasta and Prosciutto
For 4 servings:
6 ounces thick pasta ( about 2 ½ cups dry)
1/3 cup olive oil
4 or 5 large cloves garlic
about 2/3 cup prosciutto, cut into small dice. *
¼ cup currants
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 batch cleaned dandelions ( see above)
Hard grating cheese to accompany **
Get the pasta cooking. When it’s about half done, heat the oil in a wide skillet, sizzle the garlic and prosciutto dice until both start to brown on the edges. Stir in the currants, cover and turn off the heat.
When the pasta is barely cooked, stir the dandelions into the pasta pot. They will wilt instantly. Drain at once and return to the pot. Stir in the prosciutto mixture , taste, add salt if necessary and serve garnished with lemon wedges. Pass the cheese and a grater at the table.
* We use “prosciutto ends,” the bit at the tip that’s too small to slice neatly, chunks our local market obligingly sells at a bargain price. Failing that, start with a single thick slab roughly 1/3 inch thick or substitute some other strong-flavored ham. It won’t taste the same, but it won’t taste bad. Or switch gears completely and use toasted pine nuts instead of the meat.
** last time I made this we used Magic Mountain, a sheep cheese from Woodcock Farm, in Vermont. Parmesan is fine, but why not experiment with alternatives made closer to home? The American Cheese Society has accomplished members in almost every state.
When it comes to Foods the Americas Gave the World (as the Smithsonian once described them), the Americas in question are mostly South and Central, original homes of tomatoes, potatoes, corn , chiles, chocolate and vanilla, just for starters. Once you head North, there aint much shakin’ except wild rice and maple syrup.
But there are the world’s best strawberries, tiny wild strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, the ones that Roger Williams was talking about when he said, in 1643 “…this berry is the wonder of all fruits growing naturally in these parts. It is of itself excellent so that one of the chiefest doctors of England was wont to say, that God could have made, but never did make a better berry. …”
Still true – and one of the wonderful things about them is their subtle variation: color, shape and sweetness all depending on the soil, the shade, the weather of the season. Always delicious but never predictable, the best are so intensely fragrant it takes just a handful to lift a whole quart of garden berries into the sublime.
A mercy, that, because picking wild strawberries is – let us not say a pain – but certainly not a task for the time pressed. The biggest one I’ve ever found was about the size of a nickel, though plumper, and you do have to know a good spot; thickly carpeted with plants – each one bears just a few fruits – and undercarpeted with grass, leaves or some other barrier to sand and dirt. (washing any strawberry is bad, washing the wild ones is criminal – and usually ineffective. )
It would be easier if you could move some into the garden, but for some reason you can’t. Or rather, you can move the plants; but they will remain just as shy bearing and the fruit won’t taste the same.
Enter fraises de bois, wood strawberries, F. vesca, often called wild strawberries by the wishful thinkers who write menus. Slightly larger than the wild ones and very easy to grow in gardens, they are dependably delicious — if you believe the catalogs.
Over the years, I’ve grown several varieties, including Alexandra and Baron Solemacher, each of which is often touted as tastiest. Every one of them, to a strawberry, tasted exactly like fake grape flavoring – the kind in cheap candy and gum. ( should say they taste the way this flavor smells on the breaths of others. I must have consumed some when a child but that was quite a while ago).
I am not alone in this opinion. A brief supporting quote – from Eleanor Pereny’s garden classic, Green Thoughts, is on the May 4th podcast from Virtual Hudson Valley.
Perenyi, who attributes the whole fraise de bois phenom to savvy marketing, starts out by quoting Alice B. Toklas, another authority to be reckoned with: ” The small strawberries, called by the French wood strawberries, are not wild but cultivated. It took me an hour to gather a small basket for Gertrude Stein’s breakfast, and later when there was a plantation of them in the upper garden our young guests were told that if they cared to eat them, they should do the picking themselves.”
I wouldn’t add these words (from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook) if it weren’t for the next paragraph, forgotten until I went back to find the strawberries:
” The first gathering in the garden in May of Salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby – how could anything so beautiful be mine. And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.”
(Green Thoughts and Ms. Toklas’ Cookbook have languished out of print from time to time but both are now readily available as inexpensive paperbacks..)