WINTER FOR A LOCAVORE can be long and relatively bland. While root vegetables and meat from the freezer have plenty of appeal and possibilities, even the most intrepid member of the “eating by the season” crowd is ready for some palate (and body) cleansing by the time March rolls around.
Luckily, Mother Nature has impeccable timing. Just when you’ve decided that you simply cannot look at another bowl of beef stew with carrots and potatoes, she sweeps in bearing the bright, fresh, clean tastes of spring. Each year we’re reminded of the wisdom of the seasons and why it can be more than just morally satisfying to eat according to the rhythms of the land—it can be an absolute delight for the senses.
The first tastes of spring are fleeting—they can come and go in only three to four weeks—but they are the harbinger of much to come. When the first ramps arrive, we know it won’t be too long before strawberries are ripening, and suddenly even fresh tomatoes don’t seem so far in the future.
Part of the appeal lies in the ephemeral nature of these three plants.
The season’s first ramps, fiddleheads and asparagus truly give cause for celebration. Dozens of towns in West Virginia (serious ramp territory) hold annual ramp festivals and dinners where hundreds of pounds of the alliums are consumed. In Maine, where fiddleheads are particularly treasured, nearly every house in some rural towns has a kid in a lawn chair parked at the end of the driveway with a cooler filled with bright green fiddleheads for sale. When asparagus comes into season in the Northeast, pale, vegetable-deprived consumers flock to farmers’ markets for the delicate green stems like moths to a flame.
New York, lodged about halfway between West Virginia and Maine, benefits from the presence of all three of these spring delicacies. Though the celebration might not be as widespread, it is just as enthusiastic.
Part of the appeal lies in the ephemeral nature of these three plants. Ramps are available for only about three weeks—rarely more than five. Asparagus has a season of about four to six weeks, and fiddleheads, which must be harvested before they unfurl into a full-grown fern, can come and go in less than a month. For chefs, foragers and home cooks, this means getting as much as you can in the time that these foods are available, and peppering menus and home recipes with their flavors. “When they arrive it’s just a wonderful, emotional marker that spring is really here,” says Barbara Bogart, of Locust Tree restaurant in New Paltz. In April, local foragers begin knocking on Bogart’s door, ramps and fiddleheads in hand. “The season is so short,” she says, “we put them into everything we can.”
Guy Jones, of Blooming Hill Farm, in Blooming Grove, has been foraging for ramps and fiddleheads for 20 years, and he’s seen their popularity flourish since he opened his farm stand six years ago. “We’ve really pushed the ramps,” He says, chuckling. “People need to taste them to get into it.” At the farmstand market, Jones walks around with plates of grilled ramps, offering customers a free sample. Once they taste the ramps, they’re often hooked. “Chefs start calling me in February,” Jones says. “They’re sick of potatoes and butternut squash. Everyone is asking, ‘When will the ramps be here?’” Between wholesale and retail sales, Jones goes through thousands of pounds a year. Many of his chef customers pickle and preserve a year’s worth.
Fiddleheads are a tougher sell, according to Jones. “They’re a bit more prehistoric and bizarre” he says, “but some people love them.”
Like wild mushrooms, a mystique surrounds ramps and fiddleheads, which cannot be cultivated. The time of their annual arrival is completely beyond our control, and their “window of edibility” may be heartbreakingly short. Fiddlehead foragers, in particular, have to be on top of their game: A fiddlehead that emerges from the ground in the morning (the perfect time for picking) can unfold and expand into an inedible fern by that evening. Fiddleheads begin to appear at many early farmers’ markets in April. Look for tightly coiled, firm tips with a nice green color.
Asparagus can be cultivated, but even this seemingly benign vegetable puts up a bit of a fight. Dan Guenther, of Brook Farm, in New Paltz, planted asparagus four years ago and only this season will be able to take in a full harvest. “The first year I wasn’t allowed to pick at all,” he says with amusement. “The second season, I picked for one week, then three weeks in the third season. I’m hoping to pick for four to six weeks this year.” Asparagus demands commitment and tending, but, Guenther says, it’s worth the wait. “It’s one of the highest-value products,” he acknowledges. “People clamor for it.”
Fresh-cut asparagus from your own garden or from an early farmers’ market stand a universe above the bland stuff you might find at a grocery store in the winter. Look for firm, smooth stalks with tightly closed tips and a rich green color. Avoid any spears that are dry or limp. As with other spring vegetables, asparagus has a short shelf life—it should be consumed as quickly as possible after picking. If necessary, asparagus can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator: Try wrapping the cut ends in a damp paper towel or stand the whole bunch up in a container with the ends submerged in about a half-inch of water.
As their odor will clearly reveal when they’re picked or bruised, ramps (also known as wild leeks) are a member of the onion family. Look for them at farmers’ markets in April, but don’t expect anyone to reveal where they were found—most foragers keep their favorite locations a carefully guarded secret. Choose ramps with bright green leaves that are not too wilted. They are best used immediately, but can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator—wrap the bulbs in a damp paper towel. You might also place them around your house in vases until you’re ready to put them to use.
When it comes to cooking, the best rule of thumb for these delicate spring vegetables is that less is more— overcooking any of these will result in a bland, soggy mess. If you’re trying them for the first time, consider a very simple preparation that will introduce you to the flavor of the vegetable on its own before branching out into more involved recipes.
• Both the top greens and bulb of ramps are edible. They’re best braised or lightly sautéed in butter or olive oil; also try sautéing the bulbs for a minute or by themselves, then add the greens until just wilted. Ramps also are excellent grilled—substitute them anywhere you would use onions or leeks.
• Asparagus spears are most often served steamed or grilled. Try rubbing the stems with olive oil, salt and pepper before grilling. (Your oven’s broiler will do the trick if your gas or charcoal grill hasn’t yet been brought out of winter storage.) Asparagus also is a particularly nice addition to a simple vegetable stir-fry.
• Fiddleheads can be a bit tougher than ramps or asparagus, so it’s best to blanche them in boiling water for two to three minutes before using them in another preparation. After blanching, a simple sauté or braise with butter and lemon juice highlights their unique taste perfectly.
The short season of these spring foods makes them perfect candidates for preserving. Fiddleheads can be easily frozen—blanch in boiling water for three to four minutes until they turn a bright green, then chill immediately in cold water; freeze in plastic bags. The green leaves of ramps also lend themselves to freezing, but they freeze better after a quick sauté.
Perhaps the best preserving method for ramps, fiddleheads and asparagus is pickling. (Last year, I lactofermented three jars of ramp bulbs using a saltwater brine and a small amount of whey.) Ricks Picks, a New York City pickle company (widely distributed in the Hudson Valley) has just introduced “Whup Asp”— asparagus pickled in a brine infused with white wine vinegar, pink peppercorns, hot cherry peppers and orange juice.
The University of Maine has tested a variety of fiddlehead pickling recipes and concludes that just about any treatment that could be used for cucumbers (bread-and- butter pickles, mustard pickles, etc.) will work just fine for fiddleheads, too.
While unique flavor and mystique play a roll in the popularity of these fleeting tastes of spring, we might also consider the possibility that our bodies are telling us something, triggering a desire for fresh greens that propels us towards the farmers’ market in April and May. Billed as “spring tonics,” asparagus, ramps and fiddleheads all contain high amounts of Vitamins A and C, both of which are largely absent from storage vegetables. Though not a cure-all, there’s no denying they help cleanse the body, and even the mind; at the very least, they drag our taste buds out of a winter stupor. They are the first signs of life as the snow recedes, giving proof of earth’s resiliency, assuring us we will have food to eat, that spring is here and summer is coming, and that our gardens will grow again.