Nothing said "Happy Earth Day" better than the 80-pound delivery of asparagus that we received yesterday, fresh-picked from Fifer Orchards. Sturdy, elegant, and tender, each spear reminds me of the strength and tenuousness of our planet, and makes me very thankful for the farmers who practice sustainable methods to grow the food we eat. Plus, after an especially brutal winter, we're all ready for bright-green, snappy flavors and textures--and asparagus, I think we can all agree, is the poster child of this season.
That being said, however, we've got a few other early spring vegetables that deserve to share the spotlight. There are breakfast radishes and arugula/mustard green mix from Sunny Harvest Co-op (Quarryville, PA); red radishes and scallions from Oasis (Lancaster County), spring onions and chives from Heritage Farm (Philly); spinach from Marolda Farms (Vineland, NJ), and field lettuce from the Rodale Institute (Kutztown, PA). And expert forager David Siller just brought in an impressive haul of tightly knotted fiddleheads, sinewy ramps, leafy patience dock, and stinging nettles from all around the area.
While radishes, scallions, salad greens, chives, and asparagus are familiar enough to most home cooks, wild-foraged vegetables may seem a little scary (nettles that sting?) or obscure (fiddle-what?). So, to help you glean the most from this time of year, here's a quick primer on the less-known delicacies of early spring, plus a few intriguing recipes to get you started:
Fiddleheads are furled-up baby fern fronds, which can be found poking through the soil in early to mid spring, on riverbanks and in dewy meadows all over the Northeast. Their season is very short--a matter of weeks--and they are only available as wild-foraged crops. A word to the wise: Raw fiddleheads can make you sick, so it is important to cook them before eating. Just blanch them in boiling water for 5 minutes, then sauté with a pat or two of butter until they are nice and tender. The texture and flavor will remind you of asparagus.
Patience Dock is a long-leafed salad green with mild, lemony flavor that is reminiscent of sorrel, a fellow member of the buckwheat family. It is known for its healing properties and has been used for centuries to detoxify the body, stave off disease, promote good eye sight, and treat skin various disorders. Since patience dock leaves are very tender, they do not take well to sautéing. For best results try them raw in salads, or blanch and stuff them with ground lamb and rice in the Romanian tradition.
Ramps are wild onions that taste like a mix between garlic and leeks. They are one of the first bright things to appear at the farmers' market each spring, with a super-short season that ends before many people even know it began. Over the past few years they have garnered quite the cult following among chefs and home cooks alike, and--lucky for us--all that hype has led to a wealth of recipes strewn across the interwebs.
Stinging Nettles are flowering herbs with delicious--yet prickly--leaves that can irritate your skin, so make sure to wear gloves when handling them raw. A quick blanch, steam, or sauté will deactivate the nasty stingers and render these greens tender and benign. They are rich in antioxidants, B vitamins, folate, potassium, iron, sulphur, and vitamin C, and they have also been shown to work as a natural antihistamine to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever and seasonal allergies. As far as flavor goes, think milder, more floral-tasting spinach.
- Green at Last Pizza with Asparagus and Parsley-Chive Pesto (from Thursday Night Pizza)
- Roasted-Garlic Asparagus (from Epicurious)
- Sichuan-Style Asparagus and Tofu Salad (from Serious Eats)
- Sautéed Fiddlehead Ferns (from Martha Stewart)
- Yum Pak Grood (Fern Curry with Shrimp) (fromSaveur)
- Fiddlehead Fern and Morel Salad (From the New York Times)
- Dock Dolmas (from Fat of the Land)
- Sorrel Soup, French Style (from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook)
- Butter-Braised Radishes with Sorrel (from Food & Wine)
- Loaded Vegetable Spring Quiche (from Vegetarian Ventures)
- Spring Vegetable Minestrone with Wild Ramp Pesto (from What's Cooking Good Looking)
- White Cheddar Grits with Grilled Ramps (fromSaveur)
- Nettle-Mushroom Pie with Pine Nuts (from Voodoo & Sauce)
- Stinging Nettle and Sharp Cheddar Omelet (from Nourished Kitchen)
- Stinging Nettle Soup (from All Recipes)