If you’re out there whipping up ramp-and-fiddlehead quiches and risottos or ordering such things in restaurants, you can skip this. You already know everything I’m about to say. Everyone else, pay attention: Ramps and fiddlehead ferns are foraged treats, which means someone got their boots on and went into the wilderness to find them for you. They’re fleeting pleasures, too — you only get a couple of weeks in spring to try them.
Ramps are delicious wild leeks that taste something like a cross between onions and garlic (the pungent flavor is more pronounced in the bulb). You can eat them raw (just don’t breathe on anybody afterwards), or use them in any recipe where you’d use onions, chives, or leeks. Wash the flat leaves, trim off the roots, and remove the papery outside on the bulb, like you would a scallion. Chop them and briefly sautée them in butter as a side dish (they cook down a bit), or use them to dress up scrambled eggs or a frittata. They’re fabulous with fried potatoes. If you have so many that they might go to waste (lucky you), you can make pesto. Just throw them, roughly chopped, into a blender or food processor with some toasted pine nuts, good olive oil and a little salt, and zap. Don’t let the paste get too smooth. Add ricotta or Parmesan cheese, if you like. The pesto will keep in the freezer for several months. You can find fresh ramps at Adams and other farm markets, and at some of the better supermarkets. But hurry!
Fiddlehead ferns are another spring delicacy — I love them. The taste is somewhere in the asparagus-artichoke-okra realm, and now that I’ve mentioned okra I suppose I should assure those of you with wrinkled noses that there’s no glutinous stuff. Fiddleheads are sometimes hard to find in stores, although once I ran across a bonanza at a Poughkeepsie Stop & Shop, of all places. Even though they’re pricey, you only need a few to jazz up a simple dish.
Be sure to consume fiddleheads before they unfurl
There’s a school of thought that fiddleheads should be boiled for at least 10 minutes. I don’t like them soggy, so here’s how we cook them at our house, and live to tell the tale: Swirl them in cold water to get off all the papery brown bits, then dunk them in boiling water for a few minutes and drain. Heat some butter or olive oil in a skillet, add the fiddleheads along with a minced shallot, and sautée for three or four minutes, until the fiddleheads are tender but still a bit crunchy. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Eat!
Most ferns unfurl from a fiddlehead, but ostrich ferns are the best edible ones. It finally dawned on me a couple of years ago that I could pick my own fiddleheads from the zillion ostrich ferns growing in our backyard without destroying the landscaping. The trick is to pick them just after they emerge, and snap off only two or three from each plant. This is called eating your ferns and having them, too. Beware: Several ferns are toxic, so take care if you’re foraging. And remember, ferns are not edible at all once they’ve unfurled.
While I’m on this vegetable kick: a reminder about Community Supported Agriculture: There may still be time to sign up for a share of produce at a local farm. Go to CSAs at www.valleytable.com for a list of farms near you.