Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spring Green


Mother Nature is a pretty good gardener. While I'm still sorting through seed-starting supplies and flipping through seed catalogs, setting up lights in the basement, looking for lost tools, trying to remember what was planted where last year and what doesn't like to be where the other what was before, the Mother of Us All has her plan all laid out, and with the first breath of spring warmth is off and running.

So to find the first local vegetables of the spring I don't look to the garden or the farmers' market; I head for the woods.

Wild asparagus is an early crop, and an entirely mythical one to me. I only think of it in the autumn when I see the blown seed stalks and think I ought to make a note of the spot, to check back in the spring. But I don't. It was my friend Lynn Ann who told me what those tall, spidery stalks were, poking up from the sandy roadside ditches. She pointed them out as we drove home from a day of fishing, and she reminisced about asparagus-hunting outings with her parents when she was a kid, how jealously people guarded the locations of their prized asparagus patches. Now I always think of her when I see those very un-asparagus-like plants, those tall spindly weeds. If I never find fresh wild asparagus, that's okay with me.

Much easier to locate, though equally short of season, are fiddlehead ferns, which are simply fern fronds that have yet to unfurl. Many kinds of ferns are edible in this young form, though some should be avoided. The safest and most abundant--and by many accounts most delicious--is the ostrich fern. You may have them in your yard. I do. That's where I picked the fiddleheads pictured here. Ostrich ferns grow in clumps, have smooth stalks (not furry), with a distinct groove on one side of the stalk.

As long as the leafy part is well-coiled, fiddleheads are edible and delicious, even if the stalk is several inches tall. They resemble asparagus somewhat both in texture and flavor. Asparagus would stand in admirably for fiddleheads in recipe offered below. Like most wild edibles, fiddleheads take a lot of washing. There's a papery brown husk over the fiddlehead as it emerges, and that needs to be removed. You can rustle the fiddleheads around in a colander or salad spinner to chafe off some of it, then washing in several changes of clean water will take care of the rest.

While some sources say fiddleheads can be eaten raw, others report digestive problems from undercooked ferns. I play it safe and blanch them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, regardless of how I intend to finish them. Go on over to the Google and search up "fiddlehead ferns ostrich wild edibles" and you'll find more info than you'll ever manage to read on the topic.

A natural companion to fiddleheads, both gastronomically and geographically, is ramps. These are the wild leeks or wild onions (allium tricoccum) that seem to be more and more common in our northern woods. They're a springtime staple in Appalachia, where some towns hold ramp and trout fests. They've become common on fancy restaurant menus, too, as the local-seasonal eating ethic moves up the food chain.

I associate ramps, fiddleheads, and watercress with trout fishing, because I find them all along trout streams. The cress lives in clear cold springs, the others like the damp, shady woods along the stream banks. A plate of grilled or fried trout over a simple cress salad, accompanied by sautéed ramps and fiddleheads, is a ritual meal in our house. It means that spring is really here. It means, as Mary remarked recently, that we can turn away from the sauerkraut, the last of last year's carrots at the bottom of the crisper, the winter squash, the frozen tomatoes, and look to spring green.

Thanks, Ma.

This tart, or pizza, highlights the spring flavors of ramps and fiddleheads in a fun and tasty package. It gets some richness from cream and a sprinkling of cheese--of course use your best local products. We made this tart (which is somewhat inspired by the Alsatian classic tarte flambée, or flammekueche in Alsatian dialect) with Cedar Summit Cream and Roth Kase Wisconsin "gruyere."

Because I think a great pizza depends on great bread, I've gone to some lengths in describing crust options. There are two long-fermented versions, and a shorter one. All will be great. If you're a bread fanatic, of course you'll want to try the long-proofed versions, which you'll find at the bottom of this post. You'll get the very best results baking this on a baking stone ("pizza stone," if you like) at high temperatures, but the lower-temp baking sheet method will make a delicious tart, too. If you have a favorite pizza dough of your own, go ahead and use that.

Ramps & Fiddleheads Tart
serves four as a main course

The dough:

The short version:

1 cup warm water
1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast

Stir the yeast into the water and let stand for about five minutes.

1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
Unbleached all-purpose flour, around 2 cups

Stir in the salt, olive oil, whole wheat flour, and one cup all-purpose flour. Then add all-purpose flour to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Place the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise till doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

The topping:

6 ounces ramps--10 to 20 depending on the size; once chopped, the white bulbs and red stems will measure about 3/4 cup
3 ounces fiddlehead ferns, a generous cup (or like amount of asparagus blanched and sliced into 1 1/2-inch pieces)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup cream

2 ounces gruyère, parmesan, or other grating cheese (aged gouda, perhaps?), grated medium-coarse

Wash the ramps well, then slice the white bulbs and red stems on the diagonal into 1/4-inch pieces. Slice the greens into 1/2-inch strips. Melt the butter in a sauté pan, add the white and red parts of the ramps and a good pinch of salt. Sauté over medium heat for a couple of minutes, till wilted. Add the ramp greens and cook one minute more. Add the cream. Remove from the heat, let cool.

Wash the fiddleheads well in several changes of water. Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the fiddleheads for three minutes, then drain and refresh them under cold running water. Drain and set aside.

If using a baking stone, preheat your oven to 525 or 510 convection.


If you don't have a stone, preheat your oven to 450 or 425 convection.

Shape the dough into a roughly 12 by 14-inch rectangle. If you'll be baking the tart on a stone, place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted wooden peel. If you don't have a stone, place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet. Spread the ramps and cream mixture over the dough, to within 1/2-inch of the edge. Distribute the fiddleheads over the top, just like pepperoni!

Let the dough rise for 20 minutes, then bake:

Stone users: Slide the tart onto the stone (make sure it's sliding freely on the peel before you stick your head in the oven!). Bake for three minutes, then sprinkle the cheese over the tart and bake for another three to four minutes, till the cheese is melted and the crust is brown.

Non-stoners: Bake your tart for five minutes, then sprinkle the cheese over the tart and bake for another four to five minutes, till the cheese is melted and the crust is brown.

Everyone, all together now: Remove the tart from the oven when it's nice and brown, let cool on a rack for a few minutes. Grind some fresh pepper over the top if you like. Slice and serve with a salad on the side, and a glass of chilled white wine, an Alsatian riesling or pinot blanc, or a dry vouvray from the Loire. Equally fitting, a light and lightly cooled red, a beaujolais or chinon.



Mixed-leaven dough (if you have a liquid sourdough starter around):

2/3 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast

Mix the yeast into the warm water and let sit five minutes. Add:

1/2 cup liquid sourdough starter
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix well, then add additional unbleached flour--up to one cup more--to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Place the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for several hours, or overnight. Remove the dough from the fridge an hour before you plan to shape it.

"Poolish" Method (a poolish is a yeast sponge which somewhat approximates a sourdough):

1 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast

Stir the yeast into the water and let stand for about five minutes. Add:

3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix well, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for several hours or overnight.

1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Additional unbleached all-purpose flour, around a cup

Stir the salt and olive oil into the poolish. Add unbleached flour a bit at a time to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at room temperature, or refrigerate, then remove from the fridge an hour before you plan to shape it.


Text and phots copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008

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