Friday, May 14, 2010

Grilled Trout, Fiddleheads and Ramps in Nettles-Bacon Broth, Part Two: Get an Idea, Make the Dish

Truth be told, I am not all that adventurous of an eater. That might seem like a strange statement coming from someone who has consumed duck tongues, veal head, pig ear, lamb heart, whitefish livers, snake, woodcock, yak, trout roe (and milt), snails, whelks, winkles; beef lung, chicken feet, tripe, kidneys, and "silk workers' brains." And a lot of other weird stuff. (The silk workers' brains, cervelle de canuts, that's actually fresh cheese, a specialty of Lyon.)

But the thing is, I don't really seek out weird foods. They just seem to find me, and when they do, I feel obliged to at least have a bite. My most fundamental inclination, though, is that I want to eat things that are delicious. If something strikes me as likely not to be delicious, I'm hesitant to even try it. Hence, my long-delayed embrace of nettles.

For years I've been seeing recipes for nettles, and I've read that they're a springtime tradition, a seasonal tonic, yada yada yada. I certainly have no trouble finding nettles. To the contrary, by midsummer along the streams I fish, in the woods where I forage, nettles, both the stinging and the wood varieties, are almost impossible to avoid. Maybe it's because they're so prolific that I've taken them for granted. Maybe it's because most of the nettles recipes I've seen involve so much egg, milk, butter, and cream, and so little nettle that their contribution to the dish seems to come down to the fact that they are green.

Well, regardless of all that, I've taken it upon myself to explore the culinary possibilities of nettles, and I'm happy to have done so. Stinging nettles, as a vegetable, can be a little fibrous, tough and stringy. Where they really contribute is in the uniquely green, deep, savory flavor they bring to a soup, a stock, or a long-cooked dish like the
lamb with nettles and ramps I made earlier this spring.

I had a mental picture of this dish that involved three key seasonal ingredients--trout, ramps, and fiddleheads--prepared very simply, and united by a sauce that shouldn't be too rich or saucy, more of a broth, or a nage, to be quite cheffy and pretentious about it. With stinging nettles growing under the apple trees just down the path from Bide-A-Wee, I knew they would be part of it. And some ramp greens added to the broth would tie things together nicely, too.

That was a good, woodsy base for my broth-sauce, but it seemed a little thin. It needed something rich and maybe meaty to give it backbone. The answer came to me right away: bacon. Or rather, a nice chunk of rind from my homemade bacon. Almost concurrent with that inspiration, I also thought: "Hey, doesn't David (Momofuku) Chang use some kind of
bacon 'dashi'?" And so he does, and it's nothing more than good bacon simmered with some kombu seaweed. So the nettles and ramps would be my inland seaweed, and the Bide-A-Wee dashi was born.

I pinched off the top six inches from about 15 nettles plants, rinsed the leaves, chopped them coarsely, and added them to three cups of water. I added the chopped greens of three or four ramps, and about a three-by-three-inch square of bacon rind, diced. If you don't have rind of home-smoked bacon, use maybe three strips of good quality bacon. I brought it to a boil and simmered it for around an hour, then turned it off and just let it sit while I made the other preparations.

The trout got salt and pepper and a little oil to keep it from sticking on the grill. The ramps and fiddleheads went naked to the grill, and halfway through I glazed them with a reduction of maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, and soy sauce flavored with more ramps greens. In the end I felt the glaze was somewhat superfluous in this dish, though by itself it was great, and I'll use it again, on pork or chicken probably.

While the fish and veg were grilling I brought the broth up to heat again and strained it. It didn't taste like much at that point, but then I started to reduce it, and it really came together. When there was about a half to two-thirds of a cup left I swirled in a couple teaspoons of butter, added a pinch of salt and some pepper.

With a glass of our own cider fizzing companionably at my elbow, the dogs asleep on the floor, I sat down to my bachelor dinner. The trout was exquisite, and the broth was superb. It took up a little extra saltiness and sweetness as the glaze dissolved off the vegetables. The fiddleheads were perfectly tender-crisp, the ramps more crisp than tender, but still good. (I had grilled some slices of pheasantback mushroom, too, but those weren't so great on the grill, so let's pretend that they're not there.)

I really should have lingered over each bite, but it was so good, I was so hungry, and there was no one to talk to. I scarfed it down.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


Sylvie in Rappahannock said...


I have never eaten nettles either - nor fiddlehead ferns. One day...

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sylvie: I imagine your Virginia fiddleheads are all grown up for this year. They can go so fast. I was watching for a patch at Bide-A-Wee to emerge this spring--there was no sign at all of them last Tuesday, but by Friday when we came back many were up, and a foot-and-a-half tall!

Nettles, well, those are more accomodating. But honestly, with your long growing season, your greenhouses--something like nettles may remain just a curiosity. They do have a distinctive flavor, though.

All best~ Brett

angie said...

Hi Brett,

Oh my - this sounds delicious. This was our first year venturing into nettle territory as well. Only pesto though.

Trout Caviar said...

Hello Angie: I should try the nettle pesto. Where do I find a good recipe for it?

If you folks are handy with a fishing rod, you should be able to get fresh fish for this dish. I understand there's some decent trout water down near your farm.

Cheers~ Brett