Eats Shoots and Leaves
Spring always arrives like a surprise. If you love food as much as I do, perhaps the mere sight of the first green bud will send you too scurrying to plan your spring recipes.
As the ice and snow of winter dissolve, it won’t be long before tender leaves begin to pop out of stark branches and valiant green shoots push their way up through the muddy soil. Spring always arrives like a surprise. After months of bleak days and cold nights, suddenly we are surrounded by glimmering signs of the abundance to come.
However, it is not the sight of crocuses that excites me. Nor the hope of trilliums and lilies-of-the-valley. Though the flowers are pretty enough, it is the tender shoots of edible vegetation that really start me salivating. Delicate leaves of ramps begin to fill my daydreams. And I imagine the thin crunchy stalks of asparagus that will soon find their way into my kitchen.
Perhaps you already have a seed catalogue tucked under your pillow. And, if you love food as much as I do, perhaps the mere sight of the first green bud will send you too scurrying to plan your spring recipes.
The culinary treats we are about to experience are plentiful. I’ve chosen two early season favourites that I recommend you do not miss.
First of all, asparagus. If you tell me you’ve been eating asparagus all winter, I’ll have no choice but to pretend that I don’t hear you. No need to remind you that local food is always a better choice than imported, but the way you cook asparagus can accentuate the difference.
Fresh, local asparagus is a delicate creature and should be treated as such. If your habit is to drop asparagus into a pot of water and boil until it is faded, mushy and limp, then the flavour of our home-grown asparagus will be undistinguished from that of its Mexican or Peruvian cousins. On the other hand, a gentle sauté in butter over low heat accentuates everything that makes our hills’ variety superior to the travel-weary vegetables that clutter the grocery store aisles. Alternatively, a quick grill over low heat not only gives fresh, local asparagus a sweet crunch, but is also a great way to christen the barbecue.
My other spring favourite is ramps. Also known as wild leeks, they are not often found in grocery stores outside of Wales. On this side of the pond, we are fortunate in these hills to have plenty of forests where leeks grow wild. You might find them growing with rebellious abandon in your own back woodlot.
If ramps haven’t made their way into your own garden yet, try a little coffee-shop research. You will surely find someone who will allow you to pull a few of these delicious, garlicky gems from their soil, or steer you to a patch of shade where they have spread out on the forest floor.
When you do find a supply of wild leeks, please be as considerate as you would be of any untamed species. Don’t take more than you will use, don’t disrupt the soil around the area, and above all please ensure that you do eat them. There is no greater tragedy than to be blessed with such a rare treasure as wild leeks only to see them wilt in the refrigerator. Again, cooking involves nothing more complicated than a little sauté in organic butter to bring the sweet taste of spring straight onto your plate.
I hope by now you are excited to try some of these first foods of the season. I’ve provided the recipes below to get you started. Remember to use local asparagus and choose slender, bright green stalks. As long as they aren’t the size of saplings, you won’t need to peel the stems.
GRILLED ASPARAGUS WITH BUTTERED RAMPS AND SAUCE GRIBICHE
36 asparagus stalks, max 3/8″ diameter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp grapeseed oil (or canola or vegetable oil)
1/2 lb ramps (wild leeks)
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
Trim the asparagus where the stalks start to become woody. Toss with vegetable oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill over low heat until slightly charred on the outside, but tender in the middle, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and drizzle with olive oil.
If the bulbs are still attached, trim the leaves where the green part starts to develop from the white stem. Clean leaves and bulbs of ramps very well, being careful not to bruise the leaves. Dry the leaves well. Heat a pan over medium heat, and dissolve the butter in the pan. Wait for the butter to “foam up.” (This is the point when the butter will melt, cook a tiny bit and start to produce a white foam in the pan.) Once the butter is foamy, add the ramps and cook very quickly, about 1 minute, just until the leaves are wilted. Season with salt and pepper and serve with the asparagus. Serves 6. If you want to make this dish a little more substantial, serve it with a toasted baguette, and a nice spring sauce, such as Sauce Gribiche.
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp capers in vinegar, drained and very finely diced
2 tbsp gherkins in vinegar, drained and very finely diced
2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
4 tbsp vinegar
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
6 tbsp grapeseed oil
salt and pepper
Pass peeled eggs through a tamis, or fine mesh strainer. Add mustard. Whisk in oils, like making mayonnaise. Fold in gherkins and capers.