Sunday, May 3, 2015

Temporary Treats

    Dinner for the past two nights has consisted of delicacies that show up in some North American farmers market stands for brief periods of time in early spring: ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes). These are the kinds of vegetables that rarely show up in food pyramid or other general dietary guideline charts. This is not because they lack nutrition: Both fiddleheads and ramps have high levels of vitamins A and C, while sunchokes deliver high levels of fiber in addition to a fairly robust array of vitamins and minerals. The reason for their obscurity in American nutritional data is their relative absence from commercial markets. While sunchokes like chives are a perennial that spreads, few farmers grow fiddleheads and ramps. These are early spring treats of forest foragers, which means that if you know what to look for, you can obtain them for free.
    I first discovered ramps when I moved to upstate New York about five years ago. Although they are described as a wild leek, I find that their slightly nutty and spicy flavor along with their aromatic scent far exceeds the somewhat bland reliability of a domestically grown leek. Unlike the domestic leeks, recipes encourage use not just of the onion-like root at the base of the ramp but of its long, languid petal-shaped leaves as well. From farmers who sell them, I understand that the task of bringing them to market is somewhat laborious: First, one must locate the ramps, and then one must dig them out -- not from soft, cultivated soil but from a forest floor. They were selling at the farmers market in my town yesterday for about $6 a bunch.
    Fiddleheads also grow in the wild, and were selling yesterday for $8 for a half-pint. On the surface, these prices might seem rather high -- especially for a plant that is not grown but foraged -- but the perspective changes when one considers the work that it takes to get a fiddlehead safely to market and explained well enough to a customer so that it is consumed safely.
    My own experience with fiddleheads has been somewhat mixed. I saw them for the first time at a market in northern India in 1996 and was immediately captivated. My friend and I were renting a small flat for a couple of weeks that had a kitchen so we decided to buy some for dinner. The market vendor told us to peel the raw edges, wash our hands well, and cook the ferns until they changed color, just a few minutes. We followed the instructions assiduously -- or thought that we did -- but had something of a disastrous result. My friend had a reaction to them, and had to be rushed to a local hospital. I went with her and spent the night in her room as she experienced rounds of fever, sweating, and vomiting. We both swore off fiddleheads after that.
    I did try them again around 2009 when I spotted them at a farmers market in Seattle. This time, the instructions for preparing them mainly were about washing my hands after handling them and not eating them raw. They tasted good, but this time I too experienced a bit of an allergic reaction. It didn't hospitalize me, but it was enough to prompt me to treat them and all other wild things with a certain degree of skepticism.
    Moving to New York, buying land that abuts a woods and turning much of that land into a homestead like farm caused me to shift my perspective on fiddleheads once again. Coming off a long winter, with the growing season appearing to be about two or three weeks behind the norm, my husband and I have been craving foods that would evoke the fresh tastes of early spring produce. So when a friend who farms on a much larger scale than we do started talking about fiddleheads my interest was perked. 
    As I procured a bag's worth Saturday, I once again received some fairly detailed instructions on how to handle fiddlehead ferns properly: They should not be red or black when cut, only bright green. If they have a prickly texture, they're past their prime for human consumption. (My thinking is that instructions from other farmers to peel the ferns and to wash your hands after handling them probably were to get ride of the prickliness.) The main sticking point, however, was cleaning them: They should be washed. Their stems should be trimmed to within 1/8 of an inch of the fern head, and all brown papery chaff that tends to protect the foliage should be removed. After this round of prep, the fiddleheads need to be rinsed, then soaked in a bowl of water with lemon juice, then drained dry first in a salad spinner and then with paper towels. And then they should not be eaten raw. They should be cooked for a minimum of five to seven minutes.
    This seemed like an inordinate amount of prep work, but I did it for about half of the bag last night and followed a recipe that called for sauteeing them in butter. They turned out well but seemed a little heavy. So tonight we did it again, this time using just a dollop of olive oil. Combined with the ramps and some roasted turnips in a stir-fry, we had a fabulous flavor explosion. My goal tomorrow is to visit my woods and forage for some of my own.