From its long, wintery slumber the earth is awakening. Soil thaws and drinks in the melting snow. Gentle rains know to come, stirring the ground with life. That classic smell of spring is surely in the air. And the sun’s warm rays rouse our first plants into budding.
As the cyclical calendar drives Mother Nature’s hourglass, the very first spring edibles emerge. Wild leeks are the first to push out of the forest floor. Fiddlehead ferns pop up from the moist earth. Walleye are instinctively drawn up the warming creeks or shallow shoals to spawn. And finally, when conditions are perfect, the queen of spring is heralded in; the long awaited morel mushroom is announced. Together, these jewels of the outdoors present as the ultimate spring bounty feast.
Slightly nutty in taste, morels are widely considered the most prized of wild mushrooms. Common varieties include yellow and black morels. In North Country, the black morels are predominant.
Warm weather, humidity, and rain serenade this coveted one to emerge. She is regally posed for a relatively short window. Those who discover this spring treasure and culinary reward will spend hours hunting persistently.
In this region, morels are challenging to identify because they blend in with their habitat. Once you find one, get on your knees and scan intently. You’ll often see more when you get into a mind/eye profile. They can be found in cleared areas and both mature and young Aspen. Hillsides and swails are often key spots.
Keep a close eye on the ground and bring a mushroom stick to shuffle leaves and move brush. “When you think you know everything about finding morels, then think again, because they will make a fool out of you,” says Pat Swedman, life long mushroom hunter from Max, Minnesota.
Fiddlehead is a stage of growth, a tightly coiled young shoot, resembling its namesake head of a violin. There are look-alikes; but only one species is edible, the fiddleheads from the Ostrich fern. At this early stage, they have a strong chlorophyll flavor. Some say they taste like asparagus with a hint of fresh green bean. You’ll find this delicacy late April or early May, across much of the state in low areas, and near creeks and rivers. They are best when harvested when they first appear, just a few inches above the ground. Fiddleheads are in their coiled form for about only two weeks until they unfurl into graceful greenery. Rest assured, in season you can also find them in pints at some grocery stores, local markets, or food co-ops. Fiddleheads can be steamed, blanched, pureed, or sautéed. They are lovely as a side, or added to pasta dishes, as accompaniment to fish, and in salads.
How to clean fiddleheads:
1. Trim brown ends from the fern shoots and pull off the papery skin.
2. Rinse with cold water 2 or 3 times until clean, then drain and pat dry.
Ramps (wild leeks), another harbinger of spring, break through the soil in late April or early May. You’ll see colonies of them occupying cool, damp areas of deep deciduous forests. Look for their long, green, pointed oval leaves. To distinguish them from others, crush the waxy leaves to release the oniony-leek aroma. If the soil is very moist it’s much easier to pull up the ramps. If the dirt is even medium-dry, you’ll need hand or full-length garden tools to dig them out. Loosen the dirt deep below the bulb, being careful to not damage the bulb. Pull up enough for dinner and leave the rest to go to seed and germinate. Once picked, it looks similar to a table onion, but milder. The leaves and bulbs are eaten raw or cooked and are especially popular in soups. The bulbs pack a powerful garlicky-onion punch when folded into pasta, salads, and pesto. The leaves can be wrapped around fish, for a subtle scenting, while being roasted. Bulbs can be sautéed and added to any recipe that calls for onions or shallots. Ramps are also delightful in egg dishes, risotto, quesadillas, tofu, Asian cuisine, and biscuits. Ramps can be pickled and enjoyed for up to a year in the fridge. Another idea is to snip off part of the fresh leaf and immerse it in gin or vodka for spring tonic martini.
- Snip the roots away. Cut the white bulbs from the blush part and stem of the plant and rinse well. Set aside the stems for other uses.
- Heat olive oil or grapeseed oil on low to medium heat. Once hot, add ramps.
- Toss and fold for about five minutes.
- Ramp bulbs are ready for eating or adding to recipes.
About Ramp Greens/Foraging or buying
~Choose only vibrant green leaves (not pale, and skip the wilted ones)
~Rinse leaves in cold water to keep them fresh, and dry well. Then store
them in the refrigerator in damp paper towels and place in an unsealed plastic bag.
The walleye-fishing opener has a long history of being the official sign of spring.
Walleye are really abundant in our lakes and rivers. Fortunately, fishing opener coincides with the other spring treats. Once you’ve caught your own walleyes and have prepared them with these prized delicacies, the reward is complete and ready to savor.
Light, white and flaky, moist and very clean tasting, walleye lends itself well to a variety of preparation: pan-fried; pan-seared; batter coated/fried-shore lunch style; baked; broiled and grilled.
Pan-Fried Walleye with Morel-Leek Sauce
(Developed by Teresa Morrone)*
1/3 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornmeal
½ teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
4 to 6 ramps, trimmed and rinsed
2 to 3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped morels
1 cup half-and-half or evaporated skim milk
Fillets from 1 eating-sized walleye, skin removed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
To make the seasoned flour, combine the flour, cornmeal, onion powder, paprika, salt, and garlic powder (if using), in a zippered plastic bag; shake well and set aside.
Slice the ramp bulbs into 1/8-inch-thick slices; slice the greens into 1/2 –inch-wide strips.
Melt about 2 teaspoons of the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the ramps and sauté for a few minutes until soft. Add the morels and continue cooking until they are just tender, 3 minutes.
Push the mushrooms to the side of the pan, and sprinkle 2 teaspoons of the flour mixture into the juices stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring frequently. Stir in half-and-half. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles very gently; simmer while you prepare the fish. Be sure to stir the sauce occasionally while you are cooking the fish.
Dredge the damp fish fillets in the flour. Melt 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Shake the excess flour from the filets and add the fillets to the skillet in a single layer. Reduce the heat slightly and cook until the fish is a rich golden brown on the bottom. If the skillet seems dry, add a bit more butter, then turn filets and cook until fish is just done, 4 minutes on each side. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer the fish to a serving plate. Spoon the morel sauce over the fish and serve immediately.
Fiddleheads with Asian Dressing (as shown)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoon dark sesame oil
2 teaspoons rice wine (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or equivalent desired heat factor
1 cup fiddleheads
Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine (if using), sugar, sesame seeds, and cayenne in a bowl or small container; mix well. (This can be done earlier in the day; store mixture at room temperature.) Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the fiddleheads. Return to a gentle boil, and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and refresh immediately with lots of cold water. Drain a second time and refresh again immediately with lots of cold water.
In a mixing bowl, combine the fiddleheads and dressing, stirring to coat. Let stand for at least 10 minutes, or as long as an hour before serving. Serve at room temperature.
* Teresa Marrone is an independent author, she has written over a dozen additional cookbooks. She is also the author/photographer for a series of photographic field ID guides on wild berries and fruits (published for 4 regions of the US) and is also co-author of a growing series of photographic field ID guides for mushrooms.