Friday, February 19, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are!

Gleaning the First Flavors of Spring

The warmth of this month has many of our food plants in a state of confusion. A mere three weeks after Groundhog Day, we have nettles on the menu at Park Kitchen. This is the earliest I've ever seen so many foods we normally associate with the coming of spring. The Spring Equinox usually arrives without much fanfare in the garden here in the Northwest. Our first local peas and rhubarb are still some weeks away. We have to find other means of bringing some color and vibrancy to the table.

This is where Oregon shines. Foraging here is a wonderland of wild edible plants. Most climates provide a few edible weeds, like nettles, dandelion, miner's lettuces and chickweed. We really have it all, our forests filled with wild mushrooms year round, fiddlehead ferns and wood sorrels, rivers and streams lined with ramps and watercress, and on and on...

Here is a winter bed of treviso radicchios, surrounded by a wild ground cover called chickweed (stellaria media). It is one of the early wild greens I use to bring some freshness to a dish while we wait for the first spring produce. These nutty flavored leaves garnish a dish of egg, artichoke and leeks with a nettle puree and grated grana padano.

Of course, stinging nettles (urtica dioica) are a well known weed, sometimes more cautionary than culinary. Their tiny stinging spines contain an irritating toxin that dissolves rapidly with cooking. They are usually plunged into boiling water, then pureed or chopped before use. Their flavor to me has always been like a deeply flavored spinach with a resemblance to seaweed. Like those greens, it is very high in vitamins and nutrients.

Another early wild edible plant is the dandelion (taraxacum officinalis). The name comes from the French term "dent de lion," meaning lion's tooth, describing the sharp ridged leaves. When I was working in Switzerland, we made the famous Salade Lyonnaise of egg, bacon, croutons and dandelion, and in that archaic region, we called it Salade Dent de Lion. Today, most of the French speaking world call the dandelion "pissenlit," which means "piss the bed," because of the diuretic nature of the root. It is a very nutritious weed, albeit a bitter one. It must be gathered before it begins to flower or it becomes irretrievably bitter. The young plant can be tamed by pairing it with flavors rich in fats, like cheeses, eggs, bacon or duck confit, and the acidity of citrus or vinegars. It is perhaps the most widely known and loved edible weed.

Another wild edible weed I enjoy is miner's lettuce (claytonia perfoliata), also known as claytonia or spring beauty. It has two types of leaf shape, the cordate basal leaves, and the petiolate head leaves shown in the picture. As with most wild plants, the eating is good until the flower develops too much. This plant has a delicate texture and a subtle earthiness that I like to use with mushrooms and seafood.

Another nice way to bring some life to a late winter dish is by sprouting beans or nuts, and using them in salads as you would any hearty grain salad. Shown here are bean sprouts with miner's lettuce, pickled elderberries from late autumn, and a puree of nettles. I have a dish on the menu at Park Kitchen right now that uses this format, although it is composed of sprouts, sunchokes and radishes, and garnished with the tartness of wild wood sorrel (oxalis acetosella).

These are the first tastes of spring that nature offers here in the Northwest. With our extensive transportation agriculture, we see the early signs of spring in the grocery store long before they are local, asparagus from Mexico, peas and favas from California. These are often good, but not great. In the days before spring begins in earnest, greatness comes from the little things.

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