By Joe Dizney
There’s a palpable urgency at work in the garden as the natural world tries hard to fully extract itself from the now-gentle-but-still-lingering grip of this year’s insistent winter.
It seems as if all the early spring flowers—bulbs, forsythia, fruit trees—exploded all at once, dotting the still-brown landscape with wild flashes of color and life. The trees have been a bit behind in leafing out, although I noted with consternation this week that the garlic mustard seems to be going great guns.
But spring’s greens finally seem to be upon us, and nowhere is it more apparent than at the farmers market. I celebrated sorrel a couple of weeks ago, but it’s been a challenge to maintain focus while shopping when confronted with the forgotten food wonders beginning to reappear in the market.
I want desperately to celebrate each and every permutation in this column, but a biweekly schedule just can’t keep up with the available bounty. Ironwood Farms was at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market a couple of weeks ago with puntarelle, a recent exotic transplant from the mid-Italian regions of Tuscany and Lazio. This had me hyperventilating! But then it only comes to market for a short couple of weeks (although there will be another chance in the fall). Already we’re moving on to beautiful early leafy greens, most of which are best served by a simple vinaigrette or quick sauté and demand rapid and regular enjoyment.
Spring onions and young garlic are in their early prime right now, too, and definitely worthy of a look. (For a take on those, do revisit Spring Onion Pancake With Greens and Bacon, April 16, 2014.)
The edible harbinger of spring that I wait for, not so patiently, made its initial appearance locally last weekend — asparagus.
I’ve celebrated its particular charms in the past (Asparagus Bread Pudding, May 14, 2013) and there’s certainly nothing finer than simple steamed and buttered asparagus, but this year’s lingering cool evenings suggest something a bit more comforting, and risotto fits the bill.
For me, Alice Waters offers the ultimate version of this dish, with a “Green Risotto” of asparagus and fresh peas, bound together at the last minute by a fresh fava bean puree. While this is undeniably elegant, our late-breaking spring coupled with a self-imposed mandate to try and remain locally sourced (and keeping in mind the persistent California drought) leave both the favas and peas off limits, at least for now. But as the aforementioned spring onions also signal, it is ramp season, and that is something to cheer as well, so I’m suggesting we make this a joint celebration.
It should be acknowledged that ramps, or wild garlic, have become a hot ticket in the food world (last weekend Basilica Hudson in Hudson, New York, hosted its fifth annual Ramp Fest) and consequently are in danger of being overharvested. Caveats regarding responsible and sustainable consumption are in order, i.e., know your source and forage responsibly. (Glynwood Farms, presenting at the Fest, prepared a downloadable tip sheet for responsible harvesting at basilicahudson.com.)
Ramps are more-than-a-little assertive: If you’re partial to them, it’s best to consume them fast, as refrigerator storage will strongly impact everything else in your pantry. But thankfully, a few ramps go a long way to imparting their “charms” without dominating the proceedings entirely, particularly if you utilize the overlooked but pungent greens. (In fact, if you harvest your own, which is not really that hard, one of the best methods to do so sustainably is to harvest only the greens, leaving the bulbs and roots intact and in situ, guaranteeing future harvests. The Hudson Ramp Fest actually advertised itself as a “greens only” festival.)
There’s not much to be done to this recipe otherwise—it stands simply on its own. Although the hyper-epicurean me wants desperately to add a little tarragon or some fresh herb, the “eat fresh, eat local” voice in my head says it’s too early. That version will just have to wait until the ramps are long gone and the local peas have hopefully made an appearance, but that’s another story. Lemon is here as a compromise, but even it is not a necessity. This recipe is all about the season.
But for argument, let’s just say I did want to do something extra special: Madura Farms’ table at the market last week displayed the first morels I’ve seen this year, and I’m hoping the patch of ground underneath a certain elm tree will be revealing the similar treasures soon. Now those would be a welcomed addition.
Spring Risotto With Asparagus and Ramps
Serves 4 to 6 (depending on generosity)
7 to 8 cups stock (vegetable or chicken)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium shallot minced
2 cups arborio rice
1/3 cup dry white wine
¾ pound asparagus, trimmed of tough ends, bias cut into 1-inch pieces (reserve tips)
6 to 8 ramps, greens and stalks chopped and reserved separately
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the stock in a large pot and keep it at a bare simmer. Place another large, heavy pot (for risotto) over medium heat and add 3 tablespoons butter and the oil. When butter melts, add shallot and cook about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add rice and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice is also translucent (about 3 minutes).
Increase heat to medium-high and add wine, stirring constantly until wine is absorbed. Reduce heat and add enough stock so that the rice is just covered. Keep stirring, adding more stock by the ladleful when the previous addition has been absorbed, keeping the rice at a low simmer.
After around 10 minutes of cooking, add sliced asparagus stems, chopped ramp stalks and lemon zest, continuing to stir and adding stock a ladle at a time to incorporate (as above in Step 2).
After another 5 minutes, add asparagus tips, ramp greens, lemon juice and the remaining butter. Stir well, adding more stock if necessary to achieve the consistency of a thick sauce.
At about 18 minutes, add the cheese and stir to fully incorporate. Remove from heat, taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with the extra cheese as a garnish.
Photo by J. Dizney