Ramp Up Your Menu with Unusual Spring Produce
Every spring brings delightful renewal. Nature gives a nudge to dormant plants to begin anew the growing process. This time of year is especially welcome in the restaurant business because an abundance of unusual produce is again readily available – through local growers, distributors and professional foragers. Operators and chefs are eager to add fresh items that will re-awaken those bored winter palates.
Foragers must be thoroughly knowledgeable of their craft because many of the plants growing in the wild could be lethal if consumed. Knowledge is passed down through generational learning, foraging classes and manuals devoted to forage education. Once a means of survival, foraging is being eagerly embraced again across the nation.
Seattle, in fact, has instituted a remarkable public works project called the Beacon Food Forest. Here, anyone can pick fresh produce for free in an edible forest ecosystem. The project invites all ages and ethnicities to forage what they need.
Here are some of the spring valuables to keep in mind when looking for renewed menu interest:
The unfurling young sprouts of ferns are one of the first greens to appear in early spring. The fiddleheads of the ostrich fern are considered best by many foragers. Their flavor is similar to a blend of asparagus, green bean and artichoke.
These pungent harbingers of spring grow in abundance in the Appalachian Mountains and much of the Midwest and East Coast. Also known as “wild leeks,” their strong flavor evokes onions and garlic. The city of Chicago’s name is derived from the Native American word for ramps – “shikaakwa”– which grew in abundance in the surrounding area.
This herbaceous plant has toxic leaves; however, the crisp, juicy stalks (petioles) with their strong, tart taste are prized for jams, pies and other desserts. While hothouse varieties are available in late winter/early spring, outdoor rhubarb is ready to pick by April/May. Chefs are discovering ways to use it in savory dishes. It is also emerging as a great candidate for pickling.
One of the oldest leafy vegetables consumed by humans, cress grows best in aquatic surroundings, such as spring-fed streams. The delicate leaves pack a zesty flavor punch. Chefs use watercress in salads, sandwiches, scrambled eggs and soups. Bunches can be found at farmers markets April through June.