While spring heralds outdoor fun and skimpy attire, for me it’s about one thing: The start of the growing season. Early every Saturday morning, I race down to the Union Square Greenmarket eager to see what is back. It started in late April this year with ramps and spring garlic. Last week asparagus and fiddleheads joined the lineup. In a flash, spring pea shoots, radishes and rhubarb will appear, followed by strawberries, tender field greens, chamomile (a personal favorite) and herbs and the rest of the early harvest bounty.
The spring trifecta of ramps, asparagus and fiddleheads are a fleeting trio of intense flavors with true “terroir.” Their flavors evoke earthy tones of northeast woods and robust profiles of signature tastes. I enjoy them with a little bit of guilt, as they are pricey if you are not lucky enough to forage or grow your own. What I truly love about them, aside from their beauty and being the couriers of spring, is that they are independent of us. As perennials, they have their own schedule, emerging when Mother Nature decides it’s time. I celebrate these three almost slavishly, exploring every possible method of cooking and preservation to enhance and extend my enjoyment of them. And when they are gone, it’s over till next year. They are a glorious connection to humanity and nature, encompassing passion, discipline and the ephemeral character of life itself.
Ramps are often called spring onions or wild leeks, growing uncultivated in eastern American woodland environments at higher elevations from Georgia up into Canada. They have smooth green leaves that look like lilies of the valley, and a white bulb root. Successful foraging requires cutting the leaves and leaving some of the bulbs — otherwise the plants will not grow back the following year. Their garlic- and onion-like flavor is distinctive.
Ramps don’t need a lot of cooking, just a gentle sauté in olive oil with some salt and pepper. They’re perfect in a scant few minutes. They are wonderful with farm fresh eggs, scrambled, fried or omelet style with added cheese or meats. They pair nicely with asparagus or chopped with fiddleheads. I adore making pesto with the leaves and red stems, leaving the bulbs for pickling. Trust me, a holiday gift of pickled ramps or ramp pesto should be reserved for those you truly love. Add the pesto to pasta or eggs or lasagna for amazing flavor. They are wicked good in grilled cheese sandwiches or a panini.
Asparagus are delicious when enjoyed as a seasonal local crop. Out west, the season runs from January through June, though the drought has changed the face of California asparagus farming. In the Northeast, the season is from late April/early May through June, depending on the temperatures. (Nowadays, the asparagus you buy at the store are most likely to come from China, Peru or Mexico.)
There are so many ways to enjoy asparagus, starting with simply sautéing them in olive oil or butter with salt and pepper for a few minutes; roasting for 10 minutes in a hot oven with olive oil, salt and pepper; or steaming them. Asparagus are great in pasta, salads, omelets or soup. And though I pickle almost anything, I find pickled asparagus rarely do justice to the precious stalk. If I had an overabundance, I would blanch and freeze them instead.
Fiddleheads truly fascinate me. For starters, they are stunningly beautiful. Blink and they have grown into ferns. They are nutritionally a super food with omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, lots of iron and fiber and abundant antioxidants. Their season is the briefest – sometimes just three or four weeks long. They grow wild in the Northeast, typically the New England and Canada regions. When foraging, care should be paid to the plant – removing just three of several fronds and leaving the bulk of the plant intact.
Cooking fiddleheads involves cleaning them well and removing the paper-like brown husks and then boiling in water for 10 minutes. After that, they can be sautéed with salt and pepper, some garlic and devoured alone or added to pasta, chicken or fish dishes. I have been reading about fiddlehead pesto and am tempted to try it this year. I endorse pickling fiddleheads in a gentle brine, as there is nothing like opening up a jar of them in the wintertime and feeling special. (I never share my preserved fiddleheads.)
And then, they disappear. I am always a little broken-hearted the day I get to the market and there are no more ramps or asparagus. Fiddleheads barely make an appearance. I am consoled with the first stalks of rhubarb, crisp and vibrant radishes and the knowledge that tomatoes are in the pipeline.
It is the lesson of truly savoring the moment, which though trite, is true.
Liz Neumark is CEO of Great Performances Catering and author of the cookbook Sylvia’s Table, on Twitter @SylviasTable
1 packed cup of chopped ramp leaves and stem (about 8 ounces or 2 bunches)
¾ cup of chopped walnuts
¾ cups grated parmesan/romano cheese
½+ cup olive oil
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Salt or fresh pepper according to your palate
Put first ramps, walnuts and cheese ingredients in a food processor, then add the oil in a slow drizzle and finish with 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Remove when chopped but still with some pasty consistency. Use within three weeks or freeze in small containers. I like mine ‘garlicky’ so feel free to adjust proportions to your preference.
Spring Radish Salad with Asparagus and Blood Oranges
From Sylvia’s Table Cookbook
1 bunch Easter Egg or other radishes
12 slender green asparagus spears
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 blood oranges, peeled and pith removed, sectioned
1/2 cup raw pistachios
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons blood orange juice
1 teaspoon champagne or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon minced shallot
1 cup micro arugula
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash and trim the radishes, cutting off the tail ends and leaves but retaining a little of the green tops. Cut each radish into four wedges and set aside. Trim the ends of the asparagus and peel the lower half. Blanch the asparagus in salted water for about 3 minutes, then quickly transfer to an ice bath. Drain and set the asparagus aside. Meanwhile, spread the pistachios on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 4 minutes. Whisk together the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of oil. Combine the radishes, oranges, and pistachios in a bowl and toss with the oil and lemon juice; season with salt and pepper to taste. Whisk together the blood orange juice, vinegar, shallot and a pinch of salt; slowly whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil and season to taste with pepper and additional salt as needed. Gently toss the asparagus with the dressing and divide them among four plates. Spoon the radish mixture over the asparagus and top with arugula.