Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sichuan Nettles Salad with Charred Ramps Dressing

My ramp explorations this spring have been taking me down Chinese roads. The oily ramp cakes started me thinking that way. For a bachelor dinner the night I whipped up those cakes I marinated some sliced pork shoulder, chopped up a mess of ramps, shredded a bit of cabbage, stir-fried it all up, sauced it with a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, rice wine, sugar, and cornstarch, served it over a bowl of rice. The ramp flavor permeated the dish utterly, and this one-off dish was one of the most Chinese tasting things I've made in a long time--and I know Chinese, having lived, taught, and traveled in Sichuan province for a total of more than a year in the late 80s-early 90s. By Chinese tasting I mean: not like Leeann Chin's.

That ramps convey a Chinese flavor is not really that surprising. Their closest domestic analog, to me, is garlic chives, sometimes called Chinese chives, and often used in Chinese sauces, dumpling fillings, and the like. In this dressing the chopped ramps are lightly charred in oil, bringing out their sweet side, along with a smoky edge. This combination of sweet, sour, salty, hot, and rampy would make your pooch's rawhide chews palatable; on blanched young nettles it's a springtime combination made in heaven...or Chengdu.

This is what I call a nettles "tip""--the top leaves with a couple inches of stem attached.  Tender and delicious, once blanched, on young stinging nettles plants.

Sub other types of salad greens for the nettles, if you like, or use the dressing on blanched green beans, fava beans, or asparagus.

Sichuan Nettles Salad with Charred Ramp Dressing

2 medium ramps, chopped to 1/4-inch pieces, about 1/3 cup
3 cups loosely packed young stinging nettle tips and leaves

1 tablespoon hot chile oil (or add 1 teaspoon of sambal chile paste and a little more oil when you cook the ramps)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
ground roasted Sichuan pepper, optional

Rinse the nettles very well in several changes of water, especially if they were gathered from a sandy area.  Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the nettles, and cook for 1 minute.  Drain the nettles and shock in cold water.  Drain well--save the cooking water for tea or broth, if you like--or spin in a salad spinner to remove excess water.  Place the nettles in a mixing bowl.

Heat the canola or peanut oil in a small saucepan.  When it is hot add the ramps and cook over high heat for 1 minute, until some of the ramp pieces look a bit charred. Remove from heat.  Add the chile oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar and mix well.  Add this dressing to the nettles and mix well.  Sprinkle with the Sichuan pepper, if you like, and serve.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Oily Ramp Cakes

I logged on to the excellent 3 Foragers blog a couple of days ago, and was admiring an appetizing ramp photo collage. As my eyes wandered to the upper right corner I uttered the archetypal "Doh!", and might have even slapped my forehead. The stimulus for this Homeric response was a comely shot of Chinese scallion cakes. Except, of course, they weren't scallion cakes, but ramp cakes. I've been making scallion cakes for, maybe, three decades, gathering ramps for the better part of a score of years. Never did it occur to me to make ramp cakes. Doh.

I call mine Oily Ramp Cakes, which might not sound so appetizing, but I learned my version from the recipe in Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, which I've owned since the early 1980s, and she calls them Oily Scallion Cakes. The Chinese name, in pinyin, is cong you bing--cong means scallion, you is oil, bing is a sort of pancake or flatbread.  I imagine the you here might just indicate that it's fried.  But I'll always think of the original as Oily Scallion Cakes, so Oily Ramp Cakes it must be.

They're not that greasy.  They're chewy, savory, very fragrant, a fine vehicle for that pungent springtime flavor.  Make them as an appetizer or cocktail snack, or as part of a dim sum spread.  Or have them, as I did recently, for lunch, along with a wild Sichuan nettles salad with charred ramp dressing (recipe coming soon).

Oily Ramp Cakes (after Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, with thanks to The 3 Foragers for the inspiration)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour*
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1 teaspoon cooking oil (peanut, canola, or the like)
1 cup chopped ramps, white and greens, approx. 1/4 inch chop (the number of ramps required will vary radically depending on size--10 to 12 small ramps, perhaps only 4 or 6 large ones)

Mix the flour and water to make a stiff dough.  Knead briefly, let it rest for 10 minutes, knead again for a minute or two, cover and let rest for 30 minutes.  Divide the dough in two and form into balls.  Roll and stretch each ball out into an 8-inch square.  Spread 1/2 teaspoon each of the sesame and vegetable oils onto each square, then sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and half the chopped ramps.  Roll the dough up, jelly roll style, and pinch closed the ends.  Cut each roll in half, again pinching the exposed ends closed, and flatten into discs, sort of hockey puck shape.  Let rest 15 minutes.

When you're ready to cook,  roll the cakes out to circles 6 to 7 inches in diameter.  Heat a heavy skillet and add cooking oil to a depth of about 1/8 inch.  Cook each cake for a total of 6 minutes over medium heat,  turning every minute or so.  The first side will brown much more evenly than the second, unless you use quite a bit more oil in the frying.  Drain on paper towels.  Add a bit more oil for each cake.

Eat hot, plain, or with hoisin sauce for dipping, or this honey-soy-chili sauce I concocted because I had just warmed some crystalized honey to empty the jar, and the bowl was sitting near the stove:

1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sambal

Combine and mix well.

Rolled out and ramped--note that I made rectangles here, not squares as in the recipe; but after making them this way I realized an 8-inch square would work better.  Not that big a deal.

Rolled up, cut and pucked.

Rolled flat pre-frying.



* I like to use something with a little character, like the Gold & White from Natural Way Mills in Minnesota, which is milled with the germ included.  With plain grocery store AP flour, I would add a couple tablespoons of whole wheat flour as part of the one cup.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mad City Saturday

We're doing a little road trip this weekend, down to Madison for a book signing/wild foods show & tell at The Kitchen Gallery cooking store, where you will find "Exceptional Culinary Provisions".  I haven't been to the store before, but from the video tour on the website, it looks fantastic.  I'm just worried that I'll leave behind much more in cookware purchases than I make in book royalties, but there you go.

The other exciting thing about this event is that it coincides with opening day for the Dane County Farmers' Market on the square in downtown Madison, and the Kitchen Gallery is just off the square.

The Dane County Farmers' Market is widely recognized as among the best markets in the country, and believe or not, I've never visited it before. So I'm really looking forward to it, and to you Madisonians, or folks in the vicinity who read Trout Caviar, I'd love it if you could stop by. The signing is scheduled from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. The market is open from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm.

Trout Caviar Book Signing and Wild Foods Show & Tell

The Kitchen Gallery, 107 King Street, Madison, WI 53703 608-467-6544

10:00 am to 1:00 pm

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Field Report: In Ramp Woods

"Say something once, why say it again?," goes the line from the Talking Heads song, but it's just that pull of the eternal return that compels the forager, the gardener, that perennial gyre that sets our annual rhythms, brings us round as it carries us onwards, or upwards or--wherever it is that time is taking us.  Anything novel is set within the context of the same-old, same-old, another winter melts into spring, sap rises, buds break, leaves unfold, and the warming soil--but barely, still a cold, cold bed for the warm of blood--alerts dormant roots that it's time to renew the age-old cycle.  Annie Dillard, among others, found both beauty and horror in nature's tireless circles--hope and inspiration in seasonal rebirth, despair at the mindlessness of it all, the profligacy of overripe fecundity, the plain unmitigated waste of life and matter.  Here it comes again.  A la Beckett:  I can't go on.  I'll go on.

The ramps are up in near north Wisconsin, crazy early, and the whack-a-doodle climatic shenanigans continue.  After a warm and muggy afternoon that gave us hailstorms, lightning and downpours, tornado warnings, we awoke to:  snow.  Clouds of snow gusted down our valley much of the morning, only finding purchase on car windows, twigs, and deck boards.  The grass stayed green as the white pelted down.  From heat index atmospheres the day before, we were into windchill territory again.  The snow let up by early afternoon, a cold damp wind prevailed.  Perfect conditions for a forage.

One thing that defines my character is that I love to be out in the woods alone on a cold, damp day.  It's not that I'm only happy when it rains, but Shirley Manson and I both appreciate inclement times.  Pull on the wellies, get out the waxed cotton wading jacket, the wide-brimmed wool felt hat (crushable Stetson), we're good to go.  Camera in the bag along with the hori-hori (Japanese digging knife), and let's get some ramps.  A drenching rain sets the soil up nicely for harvesting.  I plunge the knife down along a ramp stem and give it a twist, and up comes a ramp.  I take only three or four from a large cluster, and move on to the next.  In some areas ramps are being over-harvested, and taking only the tops, leaving the bulbs, is recommended.  In my woods there are literally acres and acres of ramps, and no one else harvesting them, that I've seen.  I feel fine about taking the whole thing.  Note that these are white-stemmed ramps, unlike the more common red-stemmed type.  Both occur in these woods, though the white-stemmed ones are by far most common.  They tend to be a little smaller than the red ones; the taste is the same.

My attitude towards allium tricoccum--ramps, wild leeks, wild onion--is as variable as one spring is to the next. When I first discovered them, dropping to my knees in a Wisconsin woods to find the source of the appetizing aroma produced when my wading boots crushed those broad green leaves, I embraced them enthusiastically, both because ramps go wonderfully well with grilled trout on a bed of watercress, and because I had unlimited access to what turned out to be gourmet shop fare. And then, when the culinary reputation of ramps grew and grew, this homely wild allium showing up on all the upscale menus, I turned a bit contrarian. Not that I stopped harvesting them, or enjoying their versatility, but I didn't herald their return with quite the same zeal. The ramp hype in foodie world put me off. I know I wasn't alone in that.

This year I'm taking ramps on their own terms again, and loving them. I start loving them through that ritual of the return to the forager's woods after the long winter's wait. And now that I'm installed in the country, I've got ramp patches very near my home. So an afternoon outing to gather ramps and nettles (I don't actually have to go into the woods for these, as I have them in my yard) provides a good pretext for an ambling stroll, and I can be back home in time for tea, a hot shower, then bring on happy hour and dinner. Last night it was chicken and ramp tostadas topped with six-year-old Wisconsin cheddar, a Spotted Cow close at hand.

With April temperatures back in the more usual realm, or even a bit colder, the ramps are looking perky and fresh. A benefit of the very warm March could be an unusually long ramp season. I plan to enjoy it with all due rampish gusto.

Some pictures from a trip:

Did I mention that a pretty good trout stream runs through this woods?  This is a small feeder stream to it.  Brook trout live here, too, and this broke-down beaver dam makes the upstream water quite fishable.

Upstream of the dam.  I'll hit this stretch with the 7-foot bamboo strung with a 4-weight silk line, come May.

Downstream, a meadow meander.

Stinging nettles along the stream.  It was trout fishing that led me into foraging.

Squirrel snack bar.

An opportunity for woodland omenic exegesis.  What can we read from the deer bones.

Snow on a hazel husk.

And on hazel leaves.

Look for ramps where the trout lilies grow.

Groovy trout lily leaf.  No blooms yet.

The spore-producing body of ostrich fern.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads will emerge from this unpromising-looking clump.

Interrupted fern fiddleheads are much ahead of the ostrich.  Not edible; easily distinguished by the fuzzy white coating; they lack the ostrich's grooved stem.

Positively Sixth Street.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pancake Supper (and an Appreciation of Judith Jones)

I occasionally run across a food blogger's post that opens with an ecstatic exclamation like: "Breakfast for dinner! What could be better?", followed by a description of an evening meal of french toast or waffles swathed in syrup and whipped cream which, to the writer, is apparently a culinary dream come true.  Me, my reply to the "What could be better than breakfast for dinner?" query is:  Dinner for dinner would be better, thanks.  Frankly, I often prefer dinner--or at least lunch--at breakfast  But that doesn't mean I don't like pancakes....

I recently read   Judith Jones's charming memoir of her eating life, The Tenth Muse.  Jones herself is a more than capable writer, and a pretty good cook, it sounds like, but her life's work has been most notable for the role she played in publishing the work of some pretty remarkable cooks and authors.  I knew that Jones was the visionary editor who took on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and while Julia Child is a pretty tough act to follow, Jones assembled a more than respectable stable of other authors through her long career at Alfred A. Knopf:  Claudia Rhoden, Irene Kuo, Marcella Hazen, Lidia Bastianich, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis.  She also edited  Anna Thomas's The Vegetarian Epicure, which I believe was the first cookbook I ever owned.  And those are just the highlights from her cookbook editing.  Her literary authors include some rather distinguished names, as well, John Updike and Anne Tyler among them.

It occurred to me as I looked over that list of authors that my life truly wouldn't have been the same without them.  While I've certainly availed myself of Child's expertise many times in the past, more important in my cooking, and ultimately, food writing life, were books like The Vegetarian Epicure, and Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking, which really sparked my interest in Chinese food.  Another Jones author was Roy Andries de Groot, whose book The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth provided one of the first examples I encountered of the literary married to the culinary.  I still vividly recall its splendid descriptions of meals prepared from the local products of farms and forests in the Savoy region of France.  This was local, seasonal cooking at its finest, exalted in a book published decades before the term "locavore" reared its awkward head.

And yet, it wasn't because of her association with all those food world luminaries that I picked up Jones's book in the first place.  Rather, it was her own writing, specifically several articles in Saveur magazine, that caught my interest.  Writing from a farm in Vermont, she showed such a wonderful appreciation of the northern palate, extolling the beauty of humble ingredients like sorrel and gooseberries, fiddleheads, and even milkweed.  I sensed a kindred spirit.

Which brings us back to the pancakes.  When I finished the narrative portion of The Tenth Muse, I was delighted to find a section of recipes.  I'm not sure how I missed them in my general perusal of the book, but my obliviousness did result in a lovely surprise.  Just a bit under 80 pages long, the recipes section draws from her family's past, her travels, life on that Vermont farm, Bryn Teg, and elsewhere.  One of those Vermont recipes, sorrel and leek pancakes, caught my eye at exactly the right moment--the sorrel was just up, and a few last leeks still remained in the cellar.

There are loads of other recipes in the book I want to try--and I'm not a big recipe fan, not at all.  But these dishes have an elemental appeal, steering well clear of any trendiness or affectation--spaghetti and cheese; butternut squash in cream and cinnamon; gooseberry sauce for grilled trout; duck giblet salad.  This is the sort of intimate, personal collection of recipes that I think you can trust; she's not trotting out any old thing just to fill out a cookbook and make it look like more value for the dollar.  Give me quality over quantity any day.

And when it comes to a pancake supper, I'll take savory over sweet.  I made the cakes a bit more substantial, main course fare, by adding a cup of leftover rice-wild rice pilaf.  With a bit of home-smoked bacon and a sunnyside-up egg, some good sourdough toast and a salad of wild watercress tossed with  Hay River pumpkin seed oil and coarse salt, they made a swell, simple supper.

Sorrel Leek Pancakes (after Judith Jones)
Serves two

1 medium leek, chopped--white and light green part, about 1 cup
1 cup lightly packed sorrel leaves, chopped
1 cup cooked wild rice, rice, or a combination
1 tablespoon butter
2 eggs
1/4 cup flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sauté the leek in the butter over medium heat until it is wilted and soft but not browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the sorrel and remove from heat.

Whisk together the eggs and flour with a couple good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Add the vegetables and rice and mix well.

Lightly oil a large heavy skillet and heat it over medium-high. Add the pancake batter in heaping tablespoons. Cook until well browned on each side, about 3 minutes per side.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw