May. 21, 2015

Favorite Spring Finds

If you read my last blog post, then you know that I inadvertently erased my story about some of my favorite spring forage. Since we still have another month of spring, I figured there was time to give it another go. Depending on your geographical location, some of these spring finds will be past their prime. It is still worthwhile to visit these forest and garden treats, just in case they are available in your area. So let us look at four heralds of the growing season.

Stinging Nettles

Once you get over the notion that these spring greens could be a painful bite, you will find that those tender nettle tops to be an easy green to obtain and prepare. Of course, you will need to outfit yourself with a pair of latex or rubber gloves. If you have managed to go your whole life and never encountered a nettle, they are a very prolific plant that protects itself with a chemical sting or burn and gives the skin a raised rash, which burns and tingles in a unique way. They were everywhere on my childhood farm and during the summer months, my brother, sister and I would often run in to the house to mix up slurry of baking soda to treat the affected areas. Luckily, that nasty little characteristic is easily mitigated by cooking or drying out the nettle leaves. The little hairs that pass on the "sting" are on the leaves and the stems so cover your skin well when you a foraging. The top four set of leaves are the best to collect. As time wears on and the plant matures, the leaves get tougher and grittier. I have even heard that you should not harvest the plant once they begin to flower because they become more irritating to the internal body and can cause bladder problems. The flavor is much like spinach, but to me there is a bit of an iron like flavor.

Like most other greens, it takes a large amount of the uncooked plant to produce a meal worthy cooked product. Just think spinach for a comparable. I separate the leaves from the stems since they tend to be fibrous. I gather in to a plastic bag and store in the fridge until I am ready to use. Then I give them a wash (still wearing latex gloves) and drain of the water. A salad spinner is handy in this application. I like to sauté the greens with olive oil or a little bacon and onions. They taste great with a tiny bit of liquid smoke, some Bragg Liquid Amino, a touch of Balsamic vinegar and garlic. They could also be steamed or added to liquids like soup. I have read that the sting is deactivated by drying and used for tea, but I have never tried that. My local folklore has nettles as one of the spring tonic options. Here is the link to a website that also asserts this and offers recipes. http://www.nyrnaturalnews.com/article/we-love-nettles-three-great-spring-detox-recipes/

If you do not want to forage for nettles, now you have a good excuse to check out the local farmers market or “health food” store.

Morel Mushrooms

Ahhhhh, my favorite! I am lucky to live in an area where these little gems grow. They can be a little challenging to find because they tend to “hide” under fallen leaves and blend in to the forest floor, not to mention the mobs of people that may very well beat you to the punch. If you are going to try your hand at mushroom foraging, please, please get a good mushroom book and talk to some local mushroom enthusiasts for hunting tips. With morels, there are similar looking non-edibles, so keep that in mind. If foraging is not for you, then hit the markets. Don’t be shocked when you see prices like $20/lb. or more. Just keep in mind that these shrooms are rather dry, therefor light. They have a robust “mushroomy-ness” and while not as intense as a shitake, for me this is the “flavor” of the forest. Their structure stays intact during cooking and offers such a beautifu,l textural look to your completed dish. I feel like they “play” nice with other mushrooms and don’t dominate. Therefore, the great way to stretch those expensive goodies is to pair them with a less expensive mushrooms. I still have very fond childhood memories of having mushroom soup made with morels, and thinking it beat the pants off canned mushroom soup. Morels also dry and rehydrate well. For a little more info, check out this Mother Earth News website.  http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/guide-to-hunting-for-morel-mushrooms-zmaz02amzgoe.aspx

Fiddle Head Ferns

Talk about a herald for spring! Nothing shouts “spring is here” like the unfurling of those tender new fern fronds. Once again, if you are not in to tromping around in the woods to collect these babies, tromp around the farmer’s market or your local natural food store. Like mushroom hunting, do some research before you go off collecting. Many fern varieties are edible at the still unfurled stage, yet not all are. In addition, you may want to take location in to account. I would stay away from road cuts and yards where herbicides, pesticides, dog pee, and road run off can taint your gathered treasures. I treat the fiddleheads like a tender vegetable and the flavor lays somewhere between a green bean and asparagus spear, with a little dirt thrown in (a little minerally). Keep the fronds in the fridge until ready for use and rinse them prior to cooking. I like to give them a quick stir-fry until tender. If you want to use them in a salad, steam or boil first. I would not use these raw. More info here -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiddlehead_fern

Rhubarb

This spring veg I gather right from my own garden. I suppose they grow wild somewhere, but I do not know where that is. It is so fun to see those first buds sprouting up because you know that the warm weather is close behind. Rhubarb is super easy to grow if you live in a climate that it likes. The stalks are the only edible part and they have such a quirky, tart flavor that is hard to describe. When I was a kid, I would grab a stalk, break off the leaf, peel it, and munch way on the saliva producing, sour stalk. They are best when they are still pretty young and tender because the stalks become woody as they age. When young the peel is tender enough to not be too stringy and will give the dish a pretty pink color. I grew up knowing them strictly as a dessert “fruit” and we had many a rhubarb and raisin pie (always with a lattice top for some reason). My grandma would make rhubarb sauce that we would eat as you would applesauce or bake in to a cake. Because of its tart nature, it works perfectly as a foil for a sweeter or more neutral fruit, like apples or strawberries. I will say though, one of the best pies I ever made was one spring, when my father was coming for a visit, I found myself unable to get some strawberries. However, I did have some frozen, tart pie cherries. Oh, my heart! The combo was soooo good. I have experimented with rhubarb ice cream (yummy!) and savory rhubarb compotes. A savory rhubarb sauce is a great accompaniment for meat and I even successfully paired it with salmon.

Here is the Wiki info on rhubarb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhubarb

Well, here in the Pacific Northwest, spring is stampeding by. Now my attention is on asparagus, garlic scapes, ramps and Copper River Salmon! So much culinary fun, so little time.

Happy spring!!