preserving, Vegetables

We can pickle that.

It’s spring on the east coast, which means it’s time for the annual tussle over the appeal of certain seasonal delicacies. I refer to the yearly kerfuffle over ramps, fiddleheads, morels, and other harbingers of early spring that leave some people swooning like idiots, and others rolling their eyes at the gullibility of foodies, particularly those of the locavore persuasion. Even though ramps, fiddleheads, morels, and other such foods have been enjoyed for centuries, they’ve gained new prominence during the past several years as people have gone crazy for wild, foraged product.

Having lived in Minneapolis in the early 90s, I learned pretty early that I don’t care for fiddleheads, which I picked up a few times at the local co-op before deciding I didn’t like them. They’re ferns that supposedly taste of asparagus and artichokes, but to me, they just taste like ferns. A little rusty and bitter, and not particularly delicious unless blanketed in sauce hollandaise, which is a pretty reliable way to cover any unpleasant tastes in anything but no tribute to the flavor of the fern. Ramps and morels, by comparison, are and always have been worth the hype. And although you can buy dried morels year-round, the ramp is far more ephemeral. It smells and tastes like a delicate cross between onion and garlic. The leaves are a little like scallions and chives, but far more grassy-green, and the first few times I ate them back in the day, I was a little unnerved by the fact that I could taste their woodland origins. The ramp is only available a few weeks out of the year, you can only find it in certain parts of the country, and it spoils quickly. It’s like the goddamn giant panda of the edible plant world.*

I recently acquired a good supply of ramps from a friend in our supper club, who presented me with a big bag that he in turn got from a chef he knows. It was a little like being invited to a great party the day after you agreed to attend a much lamer one – I was scheduled to spend a week out of town for work starting that Monday, and wasn’t going to be able to spend all week eating ramps. Luckily, ramp bulbs can be preserved nicely by pickling, and if you can’t get around to using them fresh right away, the leaves make an excellent compound butter. Win-win.

So if you find yourself with some ramps – and the season’s almost over – don’t worry about hurrying to serve them grilled and such with everything. Pickle the bulbs, and incorporate the greens into butter, or gnocchi dough, or biscuits. If you can, save a few to chop up and scramble into eggs while they’re fresh.

*It also may be somewhat at risk – some conservationists have expressed concern that ramp madness has led to overharvesting. Their sale has been banned in Quebec, where they’re a threatened species, since 1995. If you’re considering foraging your own this year or next, read up about how to harvest ramps sustainably. Seems if you’re the sort of person who cares about eating ramps, you’ll be interested in keeping them around. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Ramps. They're dirty.

Ramps are dirty – they come to market more or less as they are retrieved from the earth, not subjected to a high-pressure water bath. Wash the ramps really well and then divide the bulbs and the greens, removing any greens that have been badly bruised or are slimy at the base.

Cleaned up.

Trim the root from the bulbs. I always wash everything again at this point to remove any remaining grit.

Bulbs.

The greens can be cooked fresh as one would use scallions or leek greens. They’re delicate, though, so don’t overpower with other flavors. If you want to use them in compound butter or anything else involving storage, you need to blanch them first or the enzymes in the leaves will turn them to mush eventually. See the directions for blanching in the Ramp Butter recipe below.

Pickled ramps

As mentioned above, there is some question about the sustainability of wild ramp foraging, and conservationists recommend not harvesting the bulbs. That said, if you have them, this is the best way to use them.

2 lb ramps, cleaned, and greens trimmed (reserve for butter)
1 c distilled white vinegar
1 c water
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp black mustard seed
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar

Bring the vinegar, water, spices, salt, and sugar to a simmer and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve.

Divide the ramps among sterilized small lidded jars. Ladle in the pickling brine and close tightly. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes if intending to store on the shelf; otherwise simply refrigerate for several days before using.

We can pickle that!

Ramp butter

This keeps for months in the freezer, tightly wrapped – this is especially good on fish.

By the way, if you still have any yuzu from the winter, substitute it for the lemon. Ramps plus yuzu – food snobbery two-fer!

Greens from 2 lb ramps, above
1/2 lb cold unsalted butter (2 sticks)
two small lemons, zest grated, juice reserved
2/3 tsp salt
1/4 tsp shichimi togarashi or 1/8 tsp cayenne

Set a large pot of water to the boil and, when boiling at a full roll, blanch the greens just long enough for them to wilt completely, about 90 seconds. Alternatively, vacuum seal and drop the bags into the boiling water for four minutes. Do not use an immersion circulator and do not try to blanch in a small pot of water. You need to big-pot boil them so they maintain their bright green color.

Squeeze as much liquid as you can from the greens and transfer to a food processor. Process until coarsely chopped; add the butter, lemon zest and about 2 tsp juice, salt and shichimi and process until quite smooth.

Turn out onto a sheet of foil lined with clingfilm in a log and roll the compound butter within the plastic-lined foil. Twist to seal at the ends and freeze for future use.

Mmm, ramp butter.

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Pork Products, Soup, Vegetables

Spargelzeit.

I don’t love white asparagus. To me, it’s a weirdo bitter albino Teutonic thing that’s acquired the hallmarks of fine dining because of its delicacy and relative scarcity. I say “relative” because now, on any given day, you can walk into any WholeFoods in this country and pick up a bunch – they seem to be grown in hothouses in Mexico.

Spargel-y

After eighth grade, I spent the summer in Germany tormenting my former Montessori preschool teacher and her relatives. I won’t go into the sordid details here; my mother reads this from time to time and some questions about my past remain unanswered. To keep it that way, all you need to know for purposes of this piece is that, for about three months, from Hannover to the Bodensee, I gave Americans a pretty bad name. Anyway, it will be no great surprise to you to learn that German food is hearty, even in summer. I gained over ten pounds on liver dumplings (leberknödel), stuffed cabbage (krautwickel), various sausages (wurst), fried potatoes (kartoffeln), and my favorites, schnitzel and spätzle. I also had white asparagus (spargel) in a few of its tastier preparations. White asparagus soup is a favorite in Germany – supplemented with heavy cream, of course – as are the spears simply steamed and doused in hollandaise, or wrapped in Westphalian ham and gratinéed under shredded cheese. I’m still not sure how Germany avoids being the world’s fattest nation.

Being from Wisconsin, I found the white asparagus preparation involving ham and cheese by far the most appealing. Recently, I sought some conventional green asparagus for a spring ricotta gnocchi dish and, finding none (weirdly considering this is April), I picked up the white stalks instead. I decided not to use it for the gnocchi – too much white and white, I felt – and had to figure out how to dispose of it. The ham-wrapped asparagus came to mind. I found a quart of bacon stock in the freezer – a byproduct of a braised bacon dish – and a bunch of parsley root. What could be better than these quintessentially German tastes in a soup?

Parsley root.*

White asparagus and parsley root soup

You will achieve the best results using a chamber sealer and then cooking the vegetables sous vide; they retain incredible flavor. But the soup will be plenty tasty if cooked conventionally, so don’t let me scare you off.

You probably won’t find parsley root unless you order it. I’ve only seen in in the market once. Small parsnips – harvested before they become thick and woody – will do in a pinch. They won’t taste quite like parsley root, but they’ll be delicious anyway.

1 1/4 lb white asparagus, peeled
3/4 lb parsley root, roots only, peeled – substitute small parsnips
2 bay leaves
6 branches thyme
2 tbsp ice cold butter
4 c bacon stock
6 cloves garlic confit
1/2 c heavy cream

Peel and trim the asparagus to 3″ lengths; peel abd slice the parsley root about 1/4″ lengthwise.

If cooking the vegetables sous vide, set the immersion circulator in a water bath at 183F/85C. Stack the asparagus in a single layer inside a vacuum bag with 1 tbsp butter, a bay leaf, and 3 sprigs thyme. Place the parsley root in a single layer inside a vacuum bag, again with 1 tbsp butter, a bay leaf, and 3 sprigs thyme. Seal each in a chamber sealer. Drop the bags in the circulator bath and cook for 25 minutes (asparagus) and 40 minutes (parsnips). Discard the herbs but not the butter. Bring the bacon stock to a simmer. Transfer 2 c stock to a vitaprep and add the parsley root, asparagus, whatever butter remains in the bags, and garlic confit.

[If not cooking sous vide, bring the bacon stock to a simmer and add herbs, garlic confit, and the parsnips, simmering, covered, until still slightly firm; add the asparagus and simmer until both are tender. Discard the herbs and transfer to a vitaprep/blender, reserving about 1 c of the stock.]

Blitz until smooth, resting briefly between blendings. Due to the saltiness of the bacon stock, you probably will not need additional salt, but taste and season if necessary. Add the cream and blitz again; taste again for seasoning and correct. Add more stock if necessary for a fluid soup consistency; you don’t want this to be a thick purée.

Soup, crouton.

To allude to the cheese-y gratin thing, maybe accompany with a frico of grated cheese, or a toasted crouton topped with Gruyère. I laid a thin slice of house-cured ibérico lardo over the top as an homage to the ham, because I have a huge chunk of lardo to use up. You might want to use a slice of aged ham.

*Photo courtesy MarkusHagenlocher, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wurzelpetersilie_Wurzel.jpg (I forgot to take a photo of my own before using it)

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Fish, Offal

Fish tales.

During the last few years, restaurant menus have come to feature more and more of the offal – those off-cuts that so often get thrown out or turned into pet food out of ignorance of their savory qualities. I’ve written about offal around here from time to time – using liver for pâté and terrines, the joys of sweetbreads, cheeks and caul, for a start. We eat those, and plenty more – the tongue and heart, and brains are favorites.

In all the talk and excitement about oxtail and beef tongue, pork liver and lamb brains, fish often gets left behind. And that’s a shame, because – unlike most eating mammals – fish are small enough that a home cook can break down the whole animal and consume it within a meal or two. What kind of offal does the fish have to offer? Well, if you’re like most people, you’ve been eating fish primarly in fillet form, or maybe once in a while cut into steaks. Every fish has a collar, though – basically the neck – which holds delicious bits of meat; larger fish often have very moist, scallop-like cheeks; and then there’s the liver. In the spring, you’re apt to find roe sacs; for some fish, like pike and shad, these are quite creamy and delicate, even more tender than brains. Shad is reliably delicious, which accounts for its recurring star turn every spring; the rockfish roe (pictured below) is tender and moist, but sometimes can have a bitter, bleachy taste that is off-putting.

Rockfish roe, gremolata, broken brown butter.

If you’re new to fish off-cuts, the collar is probably the friendliest for a start. The recipe below for rockfish collar will be familiar to you if you’ve ever ordered hamachi kama, or the yellowtail collar, at a Japanese restaurant. If you don’t want to deal with off-cuts, try the recipe for a seared rockfish fillet, which pairs yuzu with tomato in a delicious sauce.

Rockfish collar, togarishi goma

The collar of any fish holds some of its sweetest meat – within the c-shaped curve of the bone are moist nuggets of fish, akin to the crab backfin meat in terms of flavor and succulence. Each fish only has one, of course, and it isn’t considered a prime cut, so you’re not going to find it unless a) you break down your own fish (which I recommend of course, to keep your knife skills tight and to get the freshest product); b) you live in a city with a large Asian population and a great fish market; or c) you have a reliable fishmonger who breaks down fish in-house and can sell or give you the collars. It’s worth asking around if you’re not willing to break down your own fish.

If you do want to try your hand at butchery, you’ll find it’s not hard. I recommend you have someone scale your fish, at a minimum (I sometimes do it myself but it is a colossal mess); if you have no plans for the liver and roe, they might as well gut the fish too, because the air bladders can be difficult to separate from the gills. Just ask to have your fish scaled and cleaned.

Scaling.

Lay the cleaned fish on one side with the head to the left and the belly facing you, on a couple of clean kitchen towels on a cutting board to reduce slippage. Start by trimming off the fins, which can be poke-y. Slice the fish downward through to the bone, about an inch behind the gills (if you took economics, you’re looking at a slightly downward-sloping demand curve). Then, starting at the tail end, slice off the fillet, working along the central bone at a slight angle so the blade runs against the bone, with your other hand holding the fish in place, ending when you reach the gill incision. Flip it over and do the other fillet. At this point you can clean the bones from the fillet, trim off the belly fat, etc.

To get to the collar, first chop off the spine at the incision you made behind the gills. The portion of the head between the gills and that incision is the collar – and it usually contains the fish’s pectoral fins. Think of the collar as the neck, more or less. You can cut the cheeks out of the head as well – sadly, with the typical 18-20″ rockfish, the cheeks are pretty small. Use the spine and the rest of the head for fish fumet (akin to stock); you’ll simmer it with onion, celery, carrot, fennel, white wine, and aromatics for about an hour and strain through a cheesecloth-lined chinois.

Broken down.

The recipe below specifies togarishi goma, which, broken into its Japanese components, refers to a spicy seasoning of shichimi togarishi (“seven spice mixture”) and toasted sesame seeds. I’ve never seen it outside of the famous Japanese vendor Yawataya, and that’s where I get it. Instead, I recommend buying shichimi togarishi, which is widely available in the Japanese section of groceries, and combining it with toasted sesame seeds.

Rockfish collar, miso, togarishi goma.

2 rockfish collars
2 tbsp shiro miso or aka miso
2 tbsp mirin
1 tsp usukuchi soy
1 medium yuzu or 1 small lemon
2 tbsp togarishi goma or a combination of 1/2 tsp shichimi togarishi and 2 tbsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Oven 500F/260C

If using a combination of shichimi togarishi and sesame seeds, combine and set aside.

Combine the miso, mirin, and soy in a small pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce to a thick glaze. Coat the rockfish collars in the glaze. If your oven is blazing, you can move on right away; otherwise, refrigerate the collars.

Roast for about 8-10 minutes until just fully cooked through. Season with a squeeze of yuzu juice and togarishi goma. The fish’s meat will release easily from the bone when fully cooked.

Rockfish, tomato, yuzu

Rockfish, or striped bass, is one of the finest fish in the coastal Atlantic. There aren’t a lot of advantages to living in Baltimore, especially if your husband is allergic to crab, but rockfish certainly counts as one. But take advantage of your local fish; any medium-textured white fish will do.

4 6-ounce portions rockfish (the photo below depicts a 3-ounce portion), one per person
1 pint cherry and/or pear tomatoes – if you can find a mixed box of different colors, use that
2 large yellow potatoes, peeled
2 oz pine nuts
1 medium yuzu, zest grated, halved (substitute a lemon if yuzu is unavailable)
minced chives
salt and pepper

1 large banana shallot, minced
1 c dry white wine
1 14-ounce can of tomatoes
2 c fish fumet (described above)
2 fresh bay leaves
4 branches thyme
salt
piment d’espelette or cayenne pepper
canola or grapeseed oil

400F/205C oven.

Prepare the tomato broth first:

Place a sauce pot over medium-low heat and, when hot, add a little oil to film the pan. Add the shallots and sweat until translucent. Add the white wine and reduce to au sec (a glaze). Add the canned tomatoes, breaking up, and simmer about 15 minutes to break down. Add the fish fumet and herbs and simmer another 15 minutes. Strain through a chinois, pressing on the solids. Taste for seasoning; add salt and espelette. Set aside as you prepare the rest of the dish.

Blanch the tomatoes and cook the potatoes. Set a Large pot of salted water containing the potatoes to boil over high heat. While waiting to boil, score the cherry tomatoes by slicing a shallow “x” in the stem end of the tomato. Don’t cut through to the seed sacs. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water and remove with a spider after about 10 seconds. These tomatoes are small so you do not have to shock them in cold water; simply wait until they cool a little and then slip off the skins.

When the potatoes are tender, drain and peel off the skin. Slice about 1/4″. Sauté until just golden in a hot pan with a little clarified butter.

Season the fish; if working with a larger fillet (over 4 oz), slice through the skin with 2-3 shallow parallel cuts to prevent too much curling. Place a skillet over high heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp of oil. Place the fish skin-side down in the pan and cook about 2 minutes, until the skin begins to crisp. Transfer to the oven and finish cooking. Cook about 9-11 minutes depending on the fillet’s thickness. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a single layer in the sheet pan while the fish roasts.

Plate the roasted potatoes and the blanched cherry tomatoes. Top with a portion of pan-roasted rockfish and a sprinkling of pine nuts. Stir the yuzu juice and zest into the tomato broth and ladle the broth around the fish. Garnish with chive.

Seared rockfish, yellow finns, golden pear tomatoes, pine nuts.

With tomato and yuzu.

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