Old English farmers had a term for the time of year when winter’s stores were getting low and spring was still just a promise. They called it the “hungry gap.” It makes my stomach growl just to think about it. Modern grocery store shoppers don’t experience a hungry gap anymore; it’s always summer somewhere in the world, and produce from afar flows in year-round. Asparagus from Peru, zucchini from Mexico, greens in plastic boxes from California…they fill the hunger gap but leave a flavor gap.
Just when I am thinking that the spring garden harvest is a long way off, and we will indeed suffer a hungry gap, the garden and woods wake up. It’s a forager’s paradise; the wild plants and garden survivors offer some of the most vibrant and flavorful food of the year. Chives, sorrel, mint, corn salad, garlic chives, chervil, arugula, and chickweed emerge…full deep green. Last year’s chicory, radicchio, chard, kale, mustard, and celery send out new leaves, full of energy stored all winter. In the woods, the ramps are poking out of their blanket of fallen leaves. I am as happy to see these first leaves of spring as any of summer’s more extravagant bounty.
Eating foraged plants in spring is an immersion in the here and now. Every day brings new growth–mint creeps from between the rocks, chicory emerges from under the mulch, and the winter pea shoots become succulent and enticing. I notice each leaf…its shape, texture, and color, and how it unfurls, almost blinking in the sunlight. Flavors range from sharp and intense to sweetly mellow, tamed by a long winter.
The most direct (and my favorite) way to eat these wild flavors of spring is to snip the tiny leaves into a salad. The Italians call this kind of salad misticanza, a mix of greens that includes a complex range of flavors and textures. My early spring mix includes peppery arugula, soft and mild leaves of chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste“, crunchy endive or escarole, spicy mustard leaves and flower buds, slightly bitter radicchio or chicory “Catalogna Pugliese” (Italian dandelion), delicate pea shoots, and mild chickweed. Pile the leaves into a salad bowl and toss them with good olive oil, a little salt and black pepper, and a drizzle of wine vinegar. That’s all you need.
Some people aren’t as fond as I am of the intensely green, slightly bitter taste of these wild and wonderful greens. For these taste buds, a little oil and vinegar are not enough. Happily, there is a remedy. Adding ingredients like cheeses, cooked beans, toasted nuts, and crisp croutons soften the overly zealous green-ness and introduce welcome contrasting textures. Crispy fried bacon or pancetta pair perfectly with salads of sturdy greens–a lesson we learned from the local old-timers, who dressed their foraged spring greens with bacon grease.
Spring Misticanza with Marinated White Beans
I made this with a perfect head of radicchio “Palla Rossa” that over-wintered under two layers of row cover, surviving sub-zero nights. The beans were big fat Borlotto beans that I shelled out and put in the freezer last September. Any large white beans or cannellini beans will work. The mild, soft-textured beans are the perfect foil for sharp, spicy greens.
Ingredients: 4 cups thinly sliced radicchio, 4 cups mixed spicy salad greens, 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, chives, mint), 1 1/4 cooked white beans, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, feta cheese and/or crisp fried bacon or pancetta
Warm 3 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chile and cook 1 or 2 minutes. Add the cooked beans and 2 Tbs of their cooking liquid, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 to 4 tsp red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and allow the beans to marinate while you make the salad.
Toss the radicchio, mixed greens, herbs, and onion together in a large salad bowl. Drizzle with fruity olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the warm bean mixture over the top and garnish with crumbled feta cheese and pieces of crisp bacon or pancetta.
Frittata with Spring Greens and Ramps
Ramps are a special member of the onion family that grows wild in rich, moist mountain coves. They are one of the first signs of spring and much beloved for their pungent flavor and ability to drive off the last of winter.
Ingredients: 5 large eggs, 12 ramps (substitute scallions or garlic chives–about 1 cup chopped), 1 small bunch greens (kale, chard, mustard, nettles, watercress–3 to 4 cups chopped), 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano, pecorino, or grana Padano cheese, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 2 to 3 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, mint), red chile flakes
Heat the oven to 275 degrees F. Clean and trim the ramps. Thinly slice the white ends and chop the greens into 1-inch pieces. Remove any tough stems and roughly chop the greens into bite-size pieces. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in an ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped ramps and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add the chopped greens and saute a few minutes until wilted. The young leaves should cook quickly.
Whisk the eggs with the salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir the ramps and greens and grated cheese into the eggs. Wipe the skillet clean, then set over medium-high heat with an additional 1 Tbs oil. When the oil shimmers, pour in the egg mixture into the pan. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the eggs are almost set, 15 to 20 minutes. Allow the frittata to cool 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
To serve, cut the frittata in wedges. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped herbs and a pinch of chile.
I found the instructions for making ramp butter in a cookbook written by the owners of Franny’s, a restaurant in Brooklyn dedicated to simple, seasonal, Italian food. They cure their own meats and like to pair ramp butter with pancetta on crostini. I raided my small ramp patch for this recipe, but had to supplement with wild onions to make enough.
Ingredients: 2 2/3 cups thinly sliced ramp leaves (or wild onion tops), 2/3 cup thinly sliced ramp or onion bottoms, 1/2 lb. unsalted butter, 1 tsp chile flakes, 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
In a saucepan, melt 6 Tbs butter over medium-low heat. Add 1/3 cup ramp bottoms and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chile flakes and stir 20 to 30 seconds. Add the ramp tops and salt and cook until the greens are tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl, and cool to room temperature.
In a food processor, blend the uncooked ramp bottoms with the cooked mixture. Pulse in the remaining room-temperature butter. Transfer to a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Roll into a log and twist the ends of the paper to seal. Refrigerate until used. The butter will store 1 week in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer.