May 9, 2007
Spring has finally sprung in earnest, and chefs like me are dancing, revelling in the start-up abundance of everything fresh and green; it is finally time to put the tired roots aside.
In a mere week, everything around has sprouted up, the fields and forest floors have gone from drab brown to vibrant green, the birds are all back, the air smells alive, and François smells like dirt (in a good way). The first day lily sprouts and greens like stonecrop or live-forever, adder’s leaf and daisy are plentiful, the chives and crinkleroot are out, the fiddleheads are popping up wildly, the nettle and ramp greens too. Asparagus, peas and sorrel are hitting the markets; it’s the beginning of an endless stream of local food. – Hoorah! We’re still waiting for the morels though, although their less edible cousins, the gyromites are all over..
Before the onslaught of everything green, the first harbinger of spring for me is always marked by the arrival of the sweet snow crab and Nordic shrimp.. something to tide me over while waiting for the greens. Both these have been on the market for over a month now (and both are sustainable, local choices by the way). But get ‘em fresh and eat ‘em quick, go to the markets, La Mer or your trusted fish monger. You can ask to taste them first to ensure freshness. Nordic shrimp often get a bad rap only because they have a short shelf life, and so are often frozen and mushy and fishy, nothing like when they are fresh. They are like candy, sweet and addictive, and one of my favourite things in the world, as finger food with the head on, plain for breakfast, or in a simple salad for lunch or dinner!
Now, it's all about Fiddlehead season here.. The infamous fiddlehead fern and François's first baby, is the first true local green vegetable that everyone knows, and that means madness here at Wild Plant central. He kicks off the season by donning his one piece rubber boot suit and taking his canoe out to get to the first ones. This year was a late start relative to the last couple of years, but once it hit, as with everything else (dandelions and company), it went faster then usual. The first fiddleheads are tough picking (still basically underground and sparse), but are prized and so are snapped up quickly at 7$/lb (reserved for Toqué and me). A few days of sun later, the season really gets under way, and eager pickers start showing up with 50 to 100 lb bags. When the season peaks, a week or two later (which is as of now), the price will have fallen and settled at 3$/lb wholesale. Worth every penny when it comes to quality, which means picked in an unpolluted place and close to the ground. And trust me, this is hard earned money on the pickers' parts. Especially when it’s done right, picking is back-breaking work, not to mention what it does to your hands; one day was enough for me.
When you’re out there buying fiddleheads in the unregulated market jungle, check the source (know where they were picked or at least that they are from a reputable supplier) and be wary of low prices. Look for tightly curled fern heads with no fuzz down the stems, there should be very little stem, and they should be bright green with no brown. Cook them in lots of boiling water, noting that the water should not turn jet black (a bad sign), a reddish color is normal. They are best cooked through, not just for safety, but also for taste. I find the best solution is to double blanch them 2 minutes each time, changing the water in between. That way, they are cooked sufficiently, but still retain some texture. Then, they are ready to dress or sauté or stew or pickle, however you want. If you want them really crunchy, then the best bet is to serve them cold, pickled or in a vinaigrette. Au contraire, one of my favourites is an old recipe of François’ (Façon Bas du Fleuve) in which they are falling-apart-soft and a pale, not so appetizing green color, but absolutely delicious, and only two ingredients, onions and salt pork.
I’m leaving you with a few more modern style recipes for fiddleheads too, so that you can explore them hot or cold, as a side or as the star. I’ll add on a few other spring recipes to inspire you as well.. See the recipe archives..
Even if you don’t hit the kitchen, at least get out there and enjoy the weather, visit the markets or the country if you can.. I’ll be making our signature stinging nettle soup this weekend if you want a real taste of spring. Mmmm, this year I think I will garnish it with a froth made from ramp (wild garlic) leaves, and bacon..
Our menu for the weekend: http://soupnancy.squarespace.com/recipes-/
And don't forget to check out La Semaine Verte on Radio Canada (channel 4) on Sundays at 12:30pm. Starting May 20th, every Sunday for 12 weeks, François will be a guest, introducing viewers to a new wild plant or two as things of interest come into season.. http://www1.radio-canada.ca/actualite/v2/semaineverte/
More Spring things!
May 14, 2007
This week, at the table champêtre, we’re up to our necks in fiddleheads; the cooler is loaded up with hundreds of pounds, and so the season of putting up has officially begun. Spring and summer is all about eating fresh, but fresh is also the best time to think ahead and preserve. I am trying to keep up with François’ picking, doing the infusions, the drying and pickling, the blanching and freezing. Needless to say, we have found the time to do plenty of tasting as well, relishing the bright, green tastes of spring with meals ranging from extravagant and celebratory to simple and private.
With the first lobster of the season coming in and the first Quebec asparagus on the market, you don’t need much else to make a feast fit for the queen. At home one night, I served the lobster meat au naturel with a few dabs of ramp butter which I also spread on baguette to make a more subtle and elegant version of garlic bread to go alongside. A green salad, some quick sautéed asparagus with balsamic vinegar, and some cherry tomatoes ( Quebec hothouse) roasted with crinkleroot (wild horseradish) completed our festive home-style spring dinner. Delicious.
At work, I got a little fancier, but again, the hit of the 6 course meal was the stinging nettle soup (with boletus parmesan cream). I don’t know if it is because it is so surprising that something so prickly can be so good to eat or what.. (we have to handle it with gloves until it is cooked). My hunch is that the ramp greens I snuck into the mix didn’t hurt in upping the oomph factor. At this point, I’m having a hard time not putting a little ramp in everything, even if I’m not technically supposed to be serving them because picking and selling them is illegal in Quebec. They are allegedly on the verge of extinction since Quebeckers have over-harvested them in the past, and they take along time to regenerate. None of this appears to make any sense here. We have an abundant supply on the property, François picks it in such a way that it DOES grow back, leaving a nub underground, and leaving a large percentage untouched. If you are not too greedy and pick responsibly, then there is no problem. Of course, as with anything, a few hacks spoil it for everyone. In any case, at this point, I am only cooking with the leaves, the bulb is still underground… The leaves grew too fast, and the bulbs haven't caught up yet, so we'll be saving them for next year. So, seeing that my source is sustainable, how can I NOT share it with our customers, especially when it HAS to be one of the most intoxicating, delectable things that comes from the earth?? I’m sure Brillat Savarin would approve.
Another fabulous thing this time of year is the variety of greens we have at our fingertips to put in the mesclun: linden, daisy, garlic mustard leaf, adder’s leaf, live-forever, lovage.. François has his spots in the shade where he picks them young, so the bitterness often associated with wild greens isn’t there. To that, we add some violets, some erythrone flowers, a bit of crinkleroot for punch, some wild chives, and you have a salad with character, perfect to stand up to a tart-sweet vinaigrette, and some rich, savory duck confit. Mmm.
I have to say, the only annoying thing about the mild weather is the reappearance of the bugs. I’m already busy swatting, I’ve gotten my first mosquito bite. I’m dreading my annual battle with the damn critters, which is the main obstacle in my city girl to country girl transformation. François finds my bug drama highly amusing, except for the fact that for the season, my new perfume becomes eau de citronella, of if I’m feeling weak, eau de Deet. François’ family swears by Vitamin B1 supplements, but personally I hate taking pills almost as much dealing with bugs..