Saturday, April 30, 2011

fiddlehead foraging frolic!

Early May is the time when I always think of the luxuriant fiddlehead patch behind my dear grandmother's last home in Center Sandwich. It was on Mother's Day weekend when I first came upon this patch while walking in the woods with my sister: a low, damp area a bit too dry to be called swampy, but decidedly squishy and messy on the shoes. Intrigued by the funny-looking curls popping up seemingly straight out of the ground, we brought my parents out to see. Little did I know these curlicues were edible, but I knew after my parents became excited about them, and harvested a bowl for dinner.
Fiddleheads, as the edible parts are known, are the infant fronds of the majestic Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), a large fern which grows from erect crowns in damp places and spreads by rhizomes to eventually form large stands, if conditions are right. The Ostrich Fern prefers dappled shade but because of its stature needs an area free from underbrush where its 3-4 ft fronds can grow unimpeded. It is a native of northern North America, and it is also grown in gardens as an ornamental, forming a beautiful backdrop for shade perennials. Ostrich Fern prefers acidic soil, a consideration if you want to plant it in your garden because you will likely need a soil amendment to help alter the soil pH.
Cindy's ferns: for looking only, not for picking!
Here in Ithaca, my aunt Cindy has a beautiful patch of Ostrich Ferns in the back of the backyard. It is shady, it is acidic, it is open, and the fiddleheads are popping up like a whole orchestra right now. Later, she and I will rip up the garlic mustard that always threatens to shade the fronds before they are big enough to fend for themselves (I've always thought it unfair that such an annoying weed has the names of two of my favorite food items). I think we both feel protective of that patch. She feels especially protective, of course, and so I am not allowed to harvest any of them. I have solemnly promised that I will not. However, they serve as a useful barometer. When I saw how fast those fiddleheads, which come up all crowded together at the head of the crown, were unfurling, I ran off to a few likely locations and made a small harvest. I'm not sure I can reveal where I found them, because the location might not be entirely legal, but I promise it was nobody's private garden. In any case, a traditional Yankee sense of secrecy seals my lips where forage locations are concerned.
unfurling frond sheds its brown coat
If you would like to search for fiddleheads yourself, keep in mind the growing conditions they prefer, as I describe above. You should also be careful to choose the right species of fern, as there are many other fern fronds unfurling at this time of year. They can look similar, but there are a few details that help the edible fiddleheads stand apart. Ostrich Fern fiddleheads are bright, clear green, and smooth. When they first emerge they are covered with a translucent chestnut-brown coat that easily flakes off. The fiddleheads of other fern species might have a brown coat, but the coat will be lighter in color and more closely clinging. A note: you should pick only as much as you will eat that day, as fiddleheads become bitter if frozen and are tastiest eaten on the day of picking.

While I was looking for fiddleheads, I also came across a small but healthy stand of ramps. My landscape colleague Jenna, of The Mushroom Forager, had generously given me a bunch of ramps earlier that day. Once I had smelled their sweet perfume and had seen their vividly green leaves, I had caught the bug. I wanted to search some out for myself. I can tell you, Ithacans, that if you take a walk along upper Fall Creek, you will almost certainly see some ramps. Please, please harvest them responsibly (a mantra repeated and practiced by Jenna and Ari). I have also since learned that ramps may be available to plant in your garden, though I do not know the success rate. Cindy found some for sale today and planted them near the Ostrich Ferns. Part of me is a little nervous that they may have been dug up from the wild for nursery sale.
With my ramp haul doubled, I had enough to use in making dinner that night (and of course, I was in the mood to cook with my goodies!). Here is a recipe for one of my favorite meals at this time of year (I know! I haven't posted a recipe in ages). This recipe takes a short amount of prep in terms of chopping and mixing, and once you start cooking it takes only half an hour to put it on the table.
Ramps, rinsed and ready

Pasta Primavera with Ramps, Asparagus, & Bacon
To feed four generously.

2 big handfuls ramps (approx. 2.5 packed cups very roughly chopped ramps, or double the amount in the photo above)
1 bunch asparagus, tough ends snapped off, cut into bite size pieces
8 strips thick-cut bacon (or desired amount, I include a little extra for noshing while cooking)
1 box mezzi rotini pasta (or other shape pasta of your choice)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated Asiago or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese 
3 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil or vegetable oil

Other: large serving bowl

Put a large pot of water for pasta on to boil.
Ready a vegetable steamer insert in a medium saucepan with an inch of water, and put the asparagus in this pan on medium-high heat, covered, for 7 minutes.
Put a large pan (non-stick if possible) over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, and sauté ramps until wilted and stems are tender, about 5 minutes. Add a small pinch of salt and stir frequently. Set ramps aside on a plate.
When asparagus is done, drain immediately and set aside on plate with ramps.
Preheat oven to 350.
Melt butter in microwave or on stovetop. Using a fork, mix butter with breadcrumbs and add cheese. Spread on a cookie sheet and hold in readiness.
Cook bacon (can use same pan as for ramps) until crispy.
At this point, put buttered cheesy breadcrumbs into oven for 3 minutes (careful, they burn quickly!)
When pasta is cooked al dente (I like it a hair beyond al dente, really), quickly and thoroughly drain, then invert pasta into large serving bowl. Immediately add eggs and stir well, so eggs cook on the hot pasta. Add vegetables and crumble bacon into pasta. Stir well. Take breadcrumbs out of oven, and distribute over top of the pasta. Enjoy!

I recommend a cold Pinot grigio or light beer with this dish. I myself had Sam Adams Noble Pils, which is lemony and refreshing.
 Now I want to try Jenna's recipe for ramp pesto! It sounds delicious!

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