Friday, April 29, 2011

The Time of First Green Things; Toward a More Intimate Seasonal Understanding

There was an item in the New York Times recently about a new David Bouley venture, a Japanese restaurant featuring the food of Kyoto, which noted that in the Kyoto region they recognize not only the typical four seasons, nor our common six (add in Indian Summer and Mud Season), but twenty seasons in all. The instant I read it I was completely taken with the idea. Never mind that here in Minne’Sconsin we’ve flipped back and forth through easily twenty-plus seasons in just the last month and a half—what really intrigued me about the idea was its implication of detailed observation, a notion of seasonal change not based on the months of the year, dates on a calendar, or even astronomical observations, but of intimate phenology, determining the season by what is actually occurring in nature, not what usually does, nor what you wish would. It’s a way of thinking that might help relieve the seasonal anxiety that descends in a year like this, when “spring” is so exceedingly reluctant to commit herself. If we just did away with the very notion of Spring, with all its unfulfillable expectations, it might set our minds and hearts more at ease.

So I’m eager to start working up a natural and empirical calendar for our region, one based on what the weather’s up to, what the plants and animals are doing, and what there is to eat, fresh from nature. Unless conditions permit a January grouse hunt, the first wild food I’m likely to harvest comes from the trees, but of course it’s not fruit, it's maple syrup. This year we added another unique taste to the palate: birch syrup. I was kind of tapped out (pun intended) on the sugaring by the time we’d processed a few pints of maple syrup, so I did not go whole hog on the birch, which runs later. I distilled only about a cup, but since my aim was simply to have a taste of it, I’m happy. What a taste of it tastes like: It’s sweet in a maply way, but that’s not the first flavor I detect; a pleasant, tangy bitterness is the first note, like caramel that’s been perfectly cooked just past sweet. There’s also a savory quality to it, deep and woodsy…charcoal-y, is what I’m thinking. I thought of woodcock when I tasted the finished syrup. I imagined it brushed on a grilled whole bird then served with a rough paté of the liver and giblets, maybe with roasted celery root. We’ll have to wait a few months, and implore the game gods, to try that.

Now we’re into the season of the first green things, and the first green things from the wild are: stinging nettles, earlier than wood nettles; dandelion greens, plentiful and just pleasantly bitter now; and sheep sorrel. I've dug some ramps this spring, too, and have been eating loads of them; but they are so assertive, they almost demand a season unto themselves.   They’ll be plump and prime later in May, when nettles and dandies are becoming old hat. They can share the limelight with fiddlehead ferns.

My enthusiasm for the earliest wild spring greens has never been as great as it is this year--maybe something to do with the fact that the snow came in mid-November and stayed until mid-April.  I went on a forage in late March and set my fingers a-tingling picking wee nettles sprouts from the sandy banks of a pretty trout stream just south of the Cities.  I gathered watercress on that outing, too, and made a pesto of cress and pickled ramps that I spread on a butterflied rainbow trout (Star Prairie); I stuck that under the broiler until it bubbled and browned.  The nettles tips, they were rinsed (many times, they were loaded with sand) and simply steamed atop the rice in a pilaf for a few minutes at the end of cooking.  That meal tasted of spring in an immensely satisfying way.

We've also eaten nettles blanched, mashed with boiled potatoes and some ramps--nettles ramp champ.  Some sour cream and butter rounded out that combo.  Wild salads, too, have made regular appearances on our table--cress, dandelion greens, sheep sorrel, sometimes all wild, sometimes mixed with the first local spinach of the season.  I have felt compelled to eat green and wild every chance I get.

About the sheep sorrel, those darling little eared leaves pictured above:  It's a close relative of garden sorrel, and both are related to rhubarb and buckwheat, as well as to the family of wild plants called dock--curly dock, burdock, etc.--many of which are edible in various parts, various stages of growth.  It's not always the case that wild plants and domestic crops with the same name are closely related.  High-bush cranberry, for example, isn't related taxonomically to the common Thanksgiving cranberry (which also grows in the wild, by the way), and wild chervil has nothing to do with the feathery, anise-scented garden herb.  Autumn olives?  Don't try making tapenade from those, and ground cherries have a cultivated relative, but it's the tomatillo, not the fruit of cherry trees.  

But the wild (rumex acetosella) and cultivated (rumex acetosa) sorrels clearly have a lot in common, and the "aceto-" part of both their names is descriptive of that distinctive tart flavor that runs through the rumex clan.  I'd been looking for sheep sorrel on our land for quite some time, and had been frustrated in my search; this was galling, as I had read that it was one of our most common wild edibles, considered an undesirable invasive in some agricultural areas.  Turns out I had been looking at the wrong time of the year, mid-summer, when the low rosettes are hidden by taller growth.  Once I did identify it, I started seeing it everywhere, and this spring it's one of the most prominent of the early spring wild edibles.  The leaves are tiny now, maybe and inch-and-a-half long, but their flavor is great.

When some friends—Tim and Melinda—came out to Bide-A-Wee for walks and lunch this past Saturday, I mosied part of the morning away picking nettles, dandelion greens, and sheep sorrel, which I mixed into eggs and some supporting players (red bell pepper, shallot, potato) for a wild greens frittata. (Melinda, aka Lulu, Nomenclature Tsarina, brought a wicked tasty bean and sweet potato mush--I use that term with full admiration.)  Everyone cleaned their plates, and asked for seconds.

So that's how we've been observing the time of first green things, and I'm eager to start cataloging a more refined way of noting the seasons as the year goes on--apple blossom time will surely figure prominently in our calendar; fly fishermen and -women are keenly aware of the time of the spring mayfly hatches, late May into mid-June. 

I'd be delighted to hear about how others observe the seasons in fine, rather than in those clunky three-month blocks that really don't do justice to the complexities of nature, weather, and sensibility that comprise a year.

Wild Greens Frittata

1 1/2 cups packed nettles
¾ cup dandelion greens
1/2 cup sheep sorrel leaves
1 small potato, peeled and diced small--about 1/3 inch; rinsed, drained, patted dry
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped small
1 shallot, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
A few chives, chopped
5 eggs
1/4 cup milk
olive oil
Salt and pepper
Grated cheese--swiss, gruyere, gouda, or as you please

Rinse all the greens well.  Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the nettles and dandelion greens together for 1 minute.  Drain and coarsely chop.  The sorrel doesn't need blanching.

In a good heavy skillet, preferably non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the potatoes and cook over medium heat until they just begin to brown, then add the red bell pepper and shallot.  Cook for a couple of minutes, until the shallot is translucent.  Add the garlic, all the greens, a couple good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Remove the pan from the heat.

Beat the eggs together with the milk in a mixing bowl.  Add the chives, a pinch of salt, some pepper.  Add the cooked vegetables to the egg mixture.  Wipe out the pan and return it to the stove.  Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and heat it over medium-high until the oil shimmers.  Stir the egg-veg mixture and pour it into the pan, turning to distribute it evenly--push the solids around, too, if they seem clumped in one area.

Turn the heat down to medium-low, cover, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the eggs are pretty well set.  To finish:  Our Haggis woodstove is great for gently cooking a dish like this, not so good for broiling.  What I did, I cut the frittata into quarters in the pan, then flipped each piece over, so the former top--now bottom--could brown.  I sprinkled grated cheese on the former bottom--now top--and put the lid back on for a couple of minutes to melt the cheese.  In a civilized kitchen, you can skip the flipping and finish the frittata under the broiler or in a hot oven--cook until the top is a bit brown, the cheese melted and bubbly.

We ate ours hot from the pan, but this is the sort of dish that is often made ahead and either rewarmed or served at room temp.  Without too much cheese on top, it travels well for a fisherman's or forager's lunch.

If you’re just getting in to foraging, the greens here deployed—stinging nettles, dandelion greens, and sheep sorrel—are among the most easily found and indentified in our region, especially this time of year, when they stand out among the sparse early spring greenings. I’ve mentioned before the books by Teresa Marrone and Sam Thayer, local wild foods writers of great integrity and knowledge; I mention them again. Their books are essential reading for wild foods enthusiasts in our region, and their expert descriptions will allow you to identify these wild plants with ease and assurance.  Their websites are linked at right.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

Ugh, I don't know if I can pay attention to 20 seasons, man! Though I suppose your point is that we're doing it already if we're awake and paying attention.

Here, it's Trillium Time. Which means it's nearing May Apple time. Which means I should start looking for morels soon.

Frankly, having the greenhouses is great for having 2 seasons going. Ack: 2x20=40, no wonder I am overwhelmed.

Deirdre Armstrong said...

I echo your sentiment about observing nature for clues to seasons rather than the calendar, and am trying to do more of that myself. Here in central Virginia we know that flea beetles will emerge and start chewing our wild arugula when the redbuds bloom. We know that the soil is warm enough to plant beans when the lambs quarters starts to sprout (everywhere, to the delight of our chefs!) And we know it's high summer when the purslane runs through our garden rows- another chef's favorite.

Love your blog and eagerly await your book!

s said...

I like this idea too, though I think this season the observations of signs coming (and then going) was kind of painful. Peepers came out, then went into hiding. The cranes arrived, and then moped in snow!

sd said...

Twenty seasons DOES sound like too many. But four to six definitely is not enough. I live on an urban plot, so dandelion greens likely will be the only ones I can snare in quantity. But there are other markers to seasons:

- the microseason when lawns must be mowed weekly (this interval grows with the hotter weather);
- the microseason between the end of local stored apples and the arrival of apples from Washington and elsewhere;
- the microseason between the preemptive shoeing of the cars with winter tires and the first time such tires are needed.

It definitely is a better way to view the seasons than four day markers which are pretty much arbitrary in our climate.

Wendy Berrell said...

Great info here. Thanks.

Just harvested some nettles today. Hanging some up to dry, and will steam the rest over the next couple days.

Trout Caviar said...

El, I didn't mean to add to your burden--was thinking more that nature would do the heavy lifting, and we could just sort of sit in on the proceedings! I saw trilliums starting to poke up through the duff yesterday--right behind the bloodroot; marsh marigold ready to brighten things up, too.

Hello Deirdre, thanks for the note. When I hear how various the seasonal progression is across the country, it makes even more sense to develop our own local calendars. Your chefs sound a bit more adventurous than ours--while ramps are all the rage, I'm not aware that many are using the full gamut of wild "weeds." Glad you enjoy the blog, always nice to hear.

Sara, I hear you, believe me. On a walk yesterday it occured to me: Seems kind of sad that it's May, and 40 degrees feels warm! Hang in there--looks like this week will be the big turn-around (hoping not to eat those words). But the bluebirds are in their houses, grosbeaks, towhees, catbirds and cowbirds are back. Remarkably, I heard yesterday on the radio that April's average temp was just 0.4 degrees below average. The lingering--and continuing--snow, and lack of sun made it seem worse than it was.

sd, thanks for writing. If you've got any garden space in your yard, you probably have the lamb's quarter and purslane that Deirdre mentioned. And if you or a neighbor has a patch of ostrich ferns, you might be able to forage a few fiddleheads. I like your micro-season suggestions. At our house in the city I tend to mow once a month at most, while the wild meadow lawn at the cabin could be mowed daily in high summer--I guess it averages out. And I leave the snow tires on year-round!

Hey, Wendy: I've been enjoying the nettles more this year than any previous. So far only the stinging nettles are up in our neck of the woods--I'll bet the wood nettles are popping up in your southerly clime (hope to hit the Whitewater for my first 2011 fish tomorrow).

Thanks, all, for the excellent thought-fodder~ Brett

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

now that's make sense to me - not only season adapted to one's local climate and topography but also personal relationship with nature and particular likes & dislikes. And some seasons are longer than others (locust blossom season IS brief - tomato season fairly long, winter squash for ever), some overlap (morels & asparagus, or cherries & currants). Some are doing "pea planting season" others are enjoying (red bed - although I know they are edible too...) Some are plant (Swamp Cabbage blossom season) other animal related (deer hunting season or blue bird nesting season)... Not everybody has the same season (I don't have a season for shad running fr example - there is no fisherman in my family...)

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

oh.. and one more thing- I have Sam Thayer's two books and most of the plants are applicable to Northern Virginia Piedmont. They are great books.

Trout Caviar said...

Sylvie, I knew this idea would strike a chord with many others who pay attention to the natural world. Quite true that some seasons will be very personal. Now that we're spending more time at our cabin in the spring, I'm aware of the returning/nesting birds in a way I never was before, so "bluebirds pick their nesting box" is now a micro-season for me.

I'm so glad to hear you've picked up the Thayer books and that you like them. I've gotten tons of use from them, and there's still much for me to learn.

All best~ Brett