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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I'm still here, and the book is...kind of...done? I'm goin' fishin'....

I guess when the recipes are all written, the essays polished and placed, and all the photos (but for a couple) taken, and my editor tells me I'm off her hook for a few weeks, until there are laid-out pages to proof, that my work is pretty well finished.  It's just that, as it all came together in bits and pieces, with mucho editing, rewriting, swapping recipes in and out, it's hard to feel that it's really done.  I'll feel differently when I see those page proofs, for sure. 

For now, I'm not going to think about it.  I've got new laces in my wading boots, my line is dressed--even washed my vest, haven't done that in years!  Tomorrow I'm heading out down U.S. Highway 52 to the Whitewater, to wet a line for the first time this year.  Gone fishin'.

Before I go, a recipe:  From a Wisconsin woods I was able to gather a sack of ramps this week, and for dinner last night I prepared this pasta dish, a wild and smoky carbonara:

Cut a thick slice of bacon into 1/2-inch pieces.  Take a good fistful of ramps, separate the green tops from the bulb and stem sections; slice the greens thin, chop the rest.  Sweat off the bacon in a big skillet, and as it's starting to brown, add the chopped ramp bulbs.  Cook those until they're a bit brown, and turn off the heat.

Meanwhile you're cooking some pasta--we used thin spaghetti--five or six ounces serves two at our house. 

In a small bowl combine an egg with 1/3 cup of cream and mix well.  You also need some grating cheese--Wisconsin asiago for us, about a half cup grated.  And then just salt and pepper, a good pinch of espelette or cayenne pepper. 

When the pasta is done save about 3/4 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.  Add the pasta and cooking water to the skillet and turn the heat on to medium.  Add the egg-cream mixture to the pasta, tossing with tongs to thoroughly distribute it--also mixing in the bacon and ramps still in the skillet.  Add half the cheese, and the ramp greens, a few grinds of black pepper, couple pinches of salt, and the espelette or cayenne.  Serve it out and bring the rest of the cheese to the table to add to taste.

The aromas of this were amazing, especially as these were the first ramps of the season.  Those wild alliums have gotten caught up in a lot of retro-culinary hoopla and trendy cheffiness in the last few years--you'd think they were as rare and precious as saffron or truffles.  They're not, but they're maybe just as good; for a few weeks in the spring, it's worth eating your fill.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hey, Look, a Cookie!

Buckwheat shortbread.  This unassuming little cookie has become my favorite over the years.  Nothing tricksy about it, just flours, sugar, butter, a little baking powder and salt.  Extremely forgiving.  The first time I made these I misunderstood Mary's cryptic jottings on the recipe (she's our home's main sweets baker), and combined the ingredients in totally the wrong order.  They still came out great.  Sablé means sandy in French, an apt description of the slightly gritty quality the buckwheat flour lends.  These are rustic and somehow elegant at the same time, distinctive, but comfortingly familiar.

Buckwheat Sablés
makes about 6 dozen

8 ounces butter (2 sticks)
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks

Preheat oven to 325. In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly mix the butter and sugar. In a separate bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar, mixing with your hands to incorporate. Form a well in the center and add the egg yolks, then mix them in with a fork until the texture is uniform, a bit like wet sand. Test the dough to see if it will come together by squeezing a little ball in your hand. If it's crumbly, mix in cold water a tablespoon at a time until it coheres.

Two ways to proceed from here: Roll out the dough 1/4 inch thick and cut out small fluted cookies (or another shape you like).  Or divide the dough into four pieces and roll each into a log about one inch in diameter. Wrap these in plastic and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes. When the dough is cold, slice off 1/3-inch pieces.

In either case: Place the dough on non-stick or parchment-lined cookie sheets, and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until lightly brown--the color or the buckwheat make it a little tough to tell, but they shouldn't need more than 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for two or three minutes, then remove them to a wire rack to finish cooling. These keep quite well in a close container.

p.s.~ I switched to the new blog editor, which seems to have solved the line break problem I was having--but I wonder why I can't seem to be able to add more than one photo at a time to the blog...?

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw