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.
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
1/4 cup milk
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