Bounty of Spring Dinner: Morels, Asparagus, Lovage, Sorrel, Ramps

Official Announcement: a veritable cornucopia of spring produce has exploded at the Dane County Farmers Market.

My most recent venture to the farmers market this April revealed a sea of young, green vegetables—tender shoots of scallion-like green garlic; red-bulbed ramps with silky, emerald leaves and a pungent garlic-onion hybrid flavor; chartreuse leaves of sorrel resembling spinach yet sporting a distinct lemony aroma; and long-stemmed lovage, refreshingly comparable to celery in taste and a lime-colored parsley in appearance. Predictably abiding by the old adage of “what grows together, goes together,” each of these short-seasoned gems of spring’s bounty mingle beautifully together in fresh, clean-tasting dishes that positively sing of blissful simplicity. To employ another proverb: “First, do no harm.” I cannot fathom a more appropriate grouping of vegetables to which this quote attributes—by allowing these delicate wisps of rarely experienced flavors to shine of their own accord without complicated cooking methods or overpowering ingredients, one can truly appreciate spring’s unique amalgam of vegetables.

Yet, my most fawned-over celebrity of the spring farmers market lacks a vibrant green hue, instead preferring a mottled gray painted upon its honeycomb-patterned body. Tasting somehow redolent of the forest, the morel mushroom transcends any prior mushrooms experience with its exotic, woodsy flavor and pleasently chewy, spongy texture. Lucky if we can snag a 1/2-pound container of the sparse, fleeting trophies of the foragers during any given spring, my mother and I shell out a pretty penny (this particular 0.6-pound bag cost a sweet $33.00) to revel in the indescribable joy of morels.

True beauties of spring.

In celebration of spring’s unique blend of tastebud-arousing veggies, I offer two recipes utilizing these fast-disappearing ingredients, both of which would make welcome additions to any early-season meal. The first of which, a potato salad, features a mix of freshly dug blue, purple, pink, and yellow fingerling potatoes from Butter Mountain complemented by a host of bright herbs and lemon. The second, a saute of morels and asparagus, employs a classic pairing of spring veggies for a light, simple dish.

Rainbow of young potatoes.

Rainbow Potato Salad with Spring Herbs and Lemon Dressing (Gluten Free, Soy Free, Nut Free)

Serves 3-5.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 lbs small new potatoes in various colors
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp agave nectar
  • 3-4 oz sorrel, cut into chiffonade
  • 2/3 cup lovage, leaves only, loosely packed, and minced
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, fronds only, loosely packed, and minced
  • 4 ramps, bulbs thinly sliced and leaves cut into chiffonade
  • 3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • Generous grinding of freshly ground black pepper

Boil a large pot of water. Add the potatoes and cook for 15-20 minutes, checking with a knife tip or fork for a tender, creamy texture. Drain. Slice the smaller potatoes in half, the larger ones in quarters.

Whisk together the lemon juice, zest, olive oil, and agave at the bottom of a large serving bowl. Gently stir in the potatoes until evenly coated with the dressing.

Toss the sorrel, lovage, dill, and shallots in with the potatoes and stir until the greens are very slightly wilted. Season with pepper and serve immediately or let cool in the refrigerator.

 

Local Ingredients: Multicolored fingerling potatoes from Butter Mountain Potatoes, sorrel and lovage from Blue Skies Berry Farm, ramps from Harmony Valley Farm, and shallots from the Plahnt Farm.

Recipe submitted to Wellness Weekend.

Morel-Asparagus Saute(Gluten Free, Soy Free, Nut Free)

Serves 2-4.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb fresh morels, cut in half lengthwise
  • 3/4 lb asparagus, snapped and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 4-6 stalks of green garlic, thinly sliced (can substitute scallions).
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Place the morels in a large bowl and cover them completely with water. Allow them to soak 30 minutes to an hour to coax any potential buggy critters out of the mushrooms. Drain.

Meanwhile, par-cook the asparagus. If you prefer to steam it, set up a steamer basket and cook for 2 minutes, running the asparagus under cold water immediately after to stop the cooking process. If you prefer to boil it (or if you’re making these two recipes together and would like to reuse the water from boiling the potatoes), bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook for 1 minute, again running the asparagus under cold water immediately after.

In a large saute pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and saute for 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the green garlic and thyme, and saute for another 6 minutes. Add asparagus and saute until heated through, about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley.

Local Ingredients: Morels from the McCluskey Brothers, green garlic from Harmony Valley Farm.

Comment Provoking Questions: What are your favorite springtime vegetables? Have you tasted sorrel, lovage, ramps, and/or morels?

Until next time, Ali.

Raw Chocolate-Nettle Cupcakes and Green Tea Sunchoke Soup

The unexpected burst of spring here in Madison has unleashed a premature, though verily welcomed, bounty of stunning local produce. My last excursion to the indoor farmers market ended with a canvas tote bag full to the brim with early season vegetables including crisp thumb-sized cucumbers, peppery watercress, over-wintered spinach, super sweet yellow carrots, baby kale and collard leaves, and mild-flavored medleys of gorgeous mixed salad greens—all light, refreshing fare as compared to the hearty root vegetables of winter.

With each seasonal shift offering an exciting array of earthly edible gifts, I often find myself overwhelmed and immediately yearn to remind my tastebuds of every reappearing fruit and vegetable that they had forgotten over the past year. Thus, I often return home from the farmers market with a cornucopia of produce, but not the slightest idea of how to culinarily implement it. Indeed, this weekend I found myself holding a bunch of stinging nettles in one hand and a pound of knobbly sunchokes in the other—both rather obscure ingredients.

Stinging nettle is a green leafy herb covered in fuzzy hairs (some of which “sting” and some of which do not). Thought to reduce the amount of inflammatory chemicals in the body, doctors employ nettles to treat a wide range of ailments from joint pain to eczema to urinary tract infections. Foragers and wild herb enthusiasts, however, consider the plant a gourmet cooking ingredient. Nettle soup often appears in recipes, while the Greeks add them into spanikopita and the Italians puree them into pesto or pasta fillings. Supposedly nettles require a quick blanch in boiling water before considered edible, but the recipe with which I experimented featured them raw and chopped up fine in the food processor.

Sunchokes, aka jerusalem artichokes, resemble disfigured, striped potatoes in appearance, but do indeed taste vaguely of artichokes with a crisp crunch. From a nutritional standpoint, sunchokes contain rich amounts of inulin, promoting intestinal health, as well as ample iron, vitamin C, phosphorus, and potassium. I adore the unique flavor of sunchokes in pureed soup—exactly the recipe featured in this post.

Without further ado, I present unto you a springtime edition of recipe experimentation.

Recipe One: Raw Chocolate-Nettle Cupcakes with Pistachio Crust—Adapted from Green Kitchen Stories.

Tweaks:

  • Divided the entire recipe in half to yield five cupcakes instead of one large layer cake.
  • In chocolate fudge layer, used a mixture of dates and prunes.
  • Substituted carob powder for cacao.
  • Omitted salt.
  • In nettle-mint layer, substituted 1 cup of coconut flour for the shredded coconut (the recipe calls for grinding the coconut into a flour anyway).
  • Didn’t juice the spinach or powder the nettle—simply added them to a food processor in their whole leaf forms.
  • Used 1/4 tsp peppermint extract for the “peppermint essence.”
  • Substituted date paste for the agave.
  • In frosting, omitted the coconut butter, used a whole vanilla bean instead of vanilla powder, and substituted prunes for dates.

Stalking the cupcake prey in its natural garden habitat.

Close up to highlight those gorgeous earth-toned layers.

Lessons Learned:

  • Playing with different types of dried fruit imparts subtle flavor nuances and interest in any recipe. The pure sweetness of the dates mingled well with the tart prunes.
  • The addition of cacao nibs to the chocolate fudge layer should certainly not be optional, as the original recipe suggests. I utterly adored the textural contrast of the crunchy nibs to the smooth fudge and would have quite missed their presence.
  • I completely botched the “super-infused mint layer.” Overestimating the amount of coconut flour yielded by grinding 1 1/4 cups shredded coconut, I ended up with a light green powder rather than a cakey dough. The layer certainly still tasted good—I quite enjoyed the cool peppermint flavor playing off of the snickerdoodle-reminiscent coconut flour and the grassy greens—but the texture certainly required a vast improvement. Next time, I’ll either vastly reduce the amount of coconut flour or start with shredded coconut, as per the original recipe.
  • Coconut butter is completely unnecessary in the frosting since a whole avocado offers an ample amount of fat, not to mention that a banana provides extra creaminess, to produce a silky smooth pudding-like layer with a rich mouthfeel. I fear that with coconut butter, the frosting would prove much too rich and perhaps cloying.

Local Ingredients: Spinach from Snug Haven, nettles from Brantmeier Family Farm.

Recipe Two: Green Tea Sunchoke Soup with Lemon and Rosemary—Adapted from Green Kitchen Stories.

Tweaks:

  • Instead of using only sunchokes, I implemented a mixture of complementary vegetables, two pounds in total: a generous handful of sunchokes, two large carrots, a large bulb of fennel, and two medium parsnips.
  • Substituted 1 tbsp dried rosemary for fresh.
  • Omitted the fennel garnish.

Lessons Learned:

  • What a wonderfully complex soup! The artichoke-y sunchokes, sweet carrots, bold parsnips, and anise-y fennel combine to produce a harmonious, refreshing flavor perfectly complimented by the rich matcha green tea and rosemary with a lovely dash of lemon for necessary acidity.

Local Ingredients: Sunchokes from Harmony Valley Farmcarrots and leeks from JenEhr Family Farm, garlic from Brantmeier Family Farm.

Comment Provoking Questions: Have you ever cooked with nettles or sunchokes before? If so, how did you use them? Has spring sprung early in your town as well?

Until next time, Ali.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Call me a messiah, a guru, a bringer of light. I must possess a higher power, for I can find no earthly explanation in my unthinkable accomplishment: inspring the brussels sprout enlightenment of my father. A child of the 1960’s and 70’s, my father shared a house in Arkansas with six brothers and sisters, my duck-hunting grandfather, and my southern-cooking grandmother. Gran slow-simmered traditional down-home fare such as collard greens, mac and cheese, pork ribs, and biscuits, all of which my father adored like a true southern boy. But, like many an unfortunate and naive mother, my gran fell victim to the decade’s homicidal view of vegetable cookery: boil everything into mush. Thus, my father’s hatred of smelly, acrid, watery brussels sprouts began, and with darn good reason! Who wants to eat a steaming green ball reeking and tasting of old-man gym socks?

As a young girl, I followed suit of my father’s brussels spout shunning. I was never too picky of an eater (save for a firm defiance toward all fruit except apples), but through a combination of sitcom kids’ anti-brussels sprout/broccoli jokes, the innate childlike urge to annoy my mother, and my father’s flat out refusal to even keep the mini-cabbages in the refrigerator, I harbored a resentful view of my father’s least favorite vegetable.

Turning point: veganism. (In infinitely more ways than simply brussels sprouts!) Constantly searching for the healthiest foods, I rediscovered brussels sprouts as a member of the acclaimed cruciferous family, along with broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and the like. To my mother’s delight and father’s dismay, I picked up a bag of brussels sprouts at the farmers market one Saturday in the early fall of 2009. Recalling the overcooked green-gray globs that popped into my head whenever I heard their name, I hunted for a method of brussels sprout cookery that wouldn’t yield odorous, disgusting results. Boiling: absolutely not. Steaming: still too much water involved. Sauteeing: getting better… Roasting: DING DING DING! We have a winner. I adore any roasting any vegetable, from sweet potatoes to asparagus to tomatoes, because of their concentrated, smoky flavor and tender, succulent texture. What better way to familiarize both my father and myself with brussels sprouts than by my favorite cooking method? After the first roast, my family was hooked; we’re a group of roasted brussels sprout addicts.

Tonight, my father’s eyes lit up at the mention of the first roasted brussels sprouts of the season. He gazed upon the stalk of brussels sprouts with pure affection, envisioning the tiny, juicy cabbages and crispy outer leaves (almost like little brussels sprout chips!) of the dinner ahead.

My first time buying brussels sprouts on the stalk! Such pride.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts (Gluten Free, Soy Free, Nut Free)

Serves 2-4.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb brussels sprouts (they certainly don’t have to come on the stalk, but you’ll feel a much greater sense of accomplishment if they do!)
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste (I don’t usually include salt in my recipes, but it’s truly necessary for maximum flavor in this dish.)

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

If harvesting from a stalk, free the brussels sprouts from their tree-like prison with a paring knife where each sprout’s base meets the stalk. Don’t forget to save those leaves at the top of the stalk for later! From here, directions are the same whether your sprouts came from a stalk or a bag. Give the sprouts a good rinse, as cruciferous vegetables are notorious for hanging onto grit and dirt, then pat them dry. Trim the woody bottom, discard any yellowing or blackened outer leaves, and halve each sprout (leave very small ones whole).

Toss the sprouts with enough olive oil to sufficiently coat, sprinkle with salt and a generous grinding of black pepper, and spread in an even layer on a baking sheet. Roast for about 30 minutes until the halved brussels sprouts are slightly charred and tender while the individual scattered leaves are golden brown and crispy. Devour and begin your love affair with brussels sprouts.

I served up a generous helping of brussels sprouts alongside a simple quinoa-kidney bean pilaf and two ears of sweet corn. (Sadly, not miso-grilled since our grill tank ran out of propane midway through dinner preparation. Grr!)

Meal Checklist: Protein–kidney beans. Whole Grain–quinoa. Vegetables–corn. Leafy Green–brussels sprouts.

Comment Provoking Questions: Where do you stand on the love/hate brussels sprout spectrum? What vegetable did you hate as a child that you love now? How do you like to introduce yourself to new, unfamiliar vegetables?

Until next time, Ali.

Recipe linked to Wellness Weekend.

Food for Thought Festival 2011

The September farmers market abounds with inter-season produce, creating a cornucopia of summer succulents such as tomatoes, sweet corn, eggplant, and cantaloupe paired with the first fall crops of sweet potatoes, hearty winter greens, butternut squash, and beets. Harnessing full advantage of market’s vast array, my mother and I scoured the veggie-laden stands equipped with empty canvas tote bags practically begging to hold our edible treasure trove.

Jones Valley Farm (aka the Grey Bin People): lacinato kale, purple peacock broccoli, broccoli rabe, and tuscan rossi onions (as always, proudly displayed in their grey plastic bins).

 

The Plahnt Farm: sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, red frying peppers, and beets.

Palm’s Mushroom Cellar: crimini mushrooms.

Door County Fruit Market: peaches.

Singing Fawn Gardens: sungold tomatoes.

Cress Spring Bakery: kamut bread (a main ingredient in my grilled-vegetable panzanella) and the number 1 all-time best vegan baked good on the planet: a blueberry-peach breakfast bar.

Luck’s Produce: sweet corn.

We also picked up a bunch of purple grapes, a bag of royal purple string beans, and three heads of garlic but alas, I cannot recall the names of the farms from which they came!

 

Halfway through our market perusal, I spotted this glorious Angel’s Trumpet tree of which I deemed necessary to snap a picture.

After completing the square of the market, I strolled just across Carroll street to volunteer at the 13th annual REAP Food for Thought Festival.

You’ve probably seen REAP mentioned elsewhere on my blog, such as in the Buy Fresh Buy Local Madison restaurant partners, but I’ve never taken the time to thoroughly explain the organization. REAP (Research, Education, Action, and Policy on…) Food Group, completely dependent on volunteer efforts, functions as a liason between farmers and the Madison community. To local restaurant, they say “Hey! Where did you get that carrot?” To which the restaurant will reply: “Um, er, well…I’m not quite sure.” Instead of recieving Sysco delivery trucks full of vegetables, meats, and cheeses from a far-off hidden factory, restaurants work with REAP to source organic products from local farms, thus reducing the restaurant’s carbon footprint while boosting the local economy, supporting fast-disappearing small family farms, and vastly improving their food’s quality with fresher ingredients grown in pesticide and hormone-free soil. REAP also boasts a Farm to School program which exposes Madison school children to local, sustainably produced foods through hands-on opportunities such as field trips to farms, healthy cooking demonstrations from Madison chefs (like my idol Tory Miller!), and snacks of locally farmed fruits and vegetables. Can you say “Ali’s ideal job”? However, seeing as a 17-year-old probably shouldn’t head an entire well-established organization, I’ll settle for volunteering for REAP at every possibly opportunity…for now.

Thus, I eagerly signed up for a volunteer shift at the Food for Thought Festival (“a fun, festive forum that explores and celebrates our many opportunities to eat more pleasurably, healthfully and sustainably”), running the information booth where I smiled, answered questions such as “So…what’s happening here?”, handed out event programs, and sold nifty t-shirts.

My favorite sprout man handed out samples of his delicious radish microgreens at the Willy Street Coop booth.

Local Dirt set up laptops for festival-goers to play with their Locavore iPhone app.

Grains from a local stone-ground mill.

The Bloom Bake Shop, fine purveyors of vegan baked goods, handed out yummy free samples of their banana chocolate chip cake.

Nature's Bakery Coop showcased their many flavors of delicious granola.

Troy Gardens sold huge bags of buckwheat, oats, and peas to entice families to sign up for a community garden plot.

Oodles more vendors highlighted their products and services, but I certainly couldn’t photograph them all. An Iron Chef inspired battle raged on between the chefs of Crema Cafe, Mermaid Cafe (WOOT!), and RP’s Pasta whilst I perused the various booths like a kid in a candy store.

I truly appreciate REAP for heading the local food movement of Madison—a progressive city which, in turn, leads the nation as one of the premiere farm-to-table communites in America.

Until next time, Ali.

A Farmers Market Morning

I call myself the Farmers Market Vegan. I allege to passionately support the local organic farmers of Madison. I claim to patronize all the restaurants that source locally grown products. I highlight each supposedly family-farmed carrot, tomato, and broccoli floret that contributes to my daily meals. But have you actually ever read a blog post about my excursions to the farmers market? For all you know, I might be a hairy, fat, lazy bum hypnotized by my own computer screen pretending to create healthy vegan recipes, review Madison restaurants, and visit the farmers market. Luckily, you can lay every pent-up anxiety you’ve sensed from my suspicious blog to rest because…I’m finally posting about my weekly shopping adventures at the farmers market!

In all honesty, I fulfill all my fruit and vegetable purchases at two of Madison’s farmers markets: the Dane County Farmers Market held every Saturday on Capitol Square, and the Hilldale Farmers Market on Wednesdays. With the exception of bananas and avocados, I stroll straight through the produce section at the Willy Street Coop with a sense of infinite superiority over their, pff, California-grown artichokes and the like, admiring the two canvas tote bags stuffed to the brim with market-fresh goodies waiting patiently for unloading in my car (I kid, the coop actually sells many local fruits and veggies, contributing to my adoring gratitude towards the hippie grocery store).

But I digress. Rain or shine, my mother and I drive downtown for the market every Saturday…and today, the weather opted for rain.

Crossing our fingers that the sky would continue to grace us with only a light drizzle, we headed for my seasonal outdoor grocery store as per usual.

Our first stand: Driftless Organics where I picked up my weekly leafy greens quota in the form of two beautiful bunches of purple kale and a pound of impeccably thin haricots verts green beans.

 

Not but two stalls down Pinckney Street from Driftless, the northerners from Door County Fruit Market boasted the first peaches of the season and assured me that after two days of ripening, they would reach their peak flavor and juiciness. Sigh. I predict a loooong two days.

Another fruit new to the farmers market scene, honeycrisp apples from Ten Eyck Orchard inspired an exuberant gasp and the frantic tapping of my mother’s shoulder. “Mom, mom, mom, lookHONEYCRISPS ARE BACK!” Yeah, I like me some honeycrisp apples.

Check out this woman giving me the death stare...she's obviously trying to snatch my apples.

Continuing down Pinckney, the first capitol block of four, we found the incredibly kind vendors of JenEhr Family Farm, one of whom shares my love of San Francisco. They offered up some beautiful mustard greens, but the two giant bundles of kale already in my bag protested (greens can be very cliquey). Instead, I chose a lovely leek—another first of the season.

 

As if my family needed any more fruit in the house, my mother conveniently forgot the apples and peaches in our canvas bags after eyeing the plump, shimmery purple grapes at Carandale Farm. Tiny fruits unbeknownst to even my experienced ingredient repetoire called Aronia and Sea Berries sparked my interest, but I decided to wait for another day when fruit wasn’t already tumbling out of our fast-filling bags.

 

Similar to my honeycrisp excitement, I literally jumped up and down at the sight of blue potatoes (completely serious: my feet actually left the ground multiple times. People stared. I didn’t care—I had blue potatoes). Envisioning a miso-sesame dressed salad of haricots verts, blue potatoes, and shallots for a near-future dinner, I grabbed a pound of my favorite blue potatoes and a bag of red shallots from Ridgeland Harvest.

 

Turning onto the Mifflin block of the market, we first stopped at Harmony Valley Farm, drawn to the wafting scent of cantaloupe (okay, more fruit. But cantaloupe! Cantaloupe, I tell you! We had to make an exception for the king of melon-kind). I also picked up a pound of my favorite salad mix. (Yes, I really do eat a pound of salad greens. It doesn’t even last me halfway through the week.)

 

Passed by the carts creating a wall of aromatic herbs…

At Green Barn Farm Market, I picked up another bag of the famous broccoli I’ve referred to as “succulent” multiple times now. And for $1.00? What a steal! I almost want to inform them that customers such as myself would happily pay more…or not.

Transitioning to the last block of Mifflin Street introduced a talented farmer with consistently beautiful produce and one of my favorite personalities at the market, Josh Lubenau of the Plahnt Farm. Soft spoken, bespectacled, and knowledgeable of all things vegetable, this young man never fails to sell me an early spring bag of fava beans, a bright green bag of lettuce, or a box of bright magenta beets like today. I plan on roasting them with balsamic vinegar and tossing them with the Harmony Valley salad mix and toasted walnuts—inspiration from my neighbor Dana.

 

And now, perhaps my most anticipated stand at the farmers market, the climax of every Saturday morning, the moment for which I struggle to restrain my salivation while perusing the less devilishly tantalizing vendors…

Picture featured on Finding Vegan.

Need I say more? Yes? Sigh, fine. I suppose something this mind-numbingly delicious merits an explanation. The purely genius minds at Cress Spring Bakery have concocted a vegan breakfast bar that I’m fairly certain the ancient Greek gods preferred to call “ambrosia.” Fit for my high health standards, this bar contains all organic oats, whole barley, whole rye, sunflower oil, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and a touch of sea salt plus a mixture of fruit that rotates with market availability. In the fall, expect pears and apples. With springtime comes rhubarb and strawberries, followed soon by raspberries. By summer, blueberries reach their pinnacle and pair with peaches— a winning combination that graced my all-time favorite baked good this morning.

 

On the Carroll Street  stretch, we stuffed a bag with the juciest, most flavorful heirloom tomatoes at the market from Snug Haven, which also features a hilarious man named Bill Warner. Their farm receives the highest honor (in my opinion) of supplying tomatoes to Frontera Grill in Chicago, home to Top Chef Master Rick Bayless—a culinary superstar and one of my chef heroes. Unfortunately, I busied myself with holding the umbrella to ward off the sudden downpour and couldn’t snap a photo of the bright yellow, red, and green zebra-striped tomatoes one-handed.

After filing behind the growing crowd onto Main Street, our last leg, we made one final stop at Sutter’s Ridge Farm to pick up two pints of blood red raspberries (on sale for $4!), from an adorable little girl who chose the two sweetest-looking, deepest-colored berry boxes of the bunch. Go little kids!

Ah. Don’t you just love returning home with a mess of summer produce from the farmers market to infiltrate your refrigerator?

 

Comment Provoking Questions: How often do you patronize your local farmers market? Who are your favorite vendors? For which fruits and veggies do you jump up and down when you see them available at the market?

Until next time, Ali.