Asparagus, ramps and morels find a glorious combination with butter, eggs and cheese.
when shadblow blooms on the mountains, and the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, many of us in the mountains start taking long hikes with a satchel in hand. We’re searching for the first tastes of spring: morels, ramps and wild asparagus.
Ramps are the first to arise. Poking their wide green leaves up through the leaf litter, these pungent plants prefer damp, sandy, north-facing locations and can often be found in coves and hollows where small streams flow. They are easy to spot as they tend to grow in large masses that form a chartreuse carpet on the forest floor. Although they resemble lilies of the valley in both their growing habit and appearance, ramps are readily identified by their smell, which is a cross between onions and garlic.
The whole plant, bulb and leaf, is edible and many people prefer ramps raw, although eating them this way will make your body odor rather unbearable. Although there are many fancy ramp recipes on the internet, most locals prefer them fried with potatoes and eggs. Ramps lose their pungency when cooked and the flavor, even for an onion-hater like me, is sublime. And because they are high in both vitamins A and C, ramps are what my mountain-raised mother-in-law used to call “a wonderful spring tonic.”
The next spring treat to emerge is the morel mushroom. Morels are much more elusive than ramps. While many of my friends are expert hunters, I have a hard time spotting them against the curly brown leaves on the forest floor. Morels pop up, overnight, after a warm spring rain and around here they seem to prefer the soil found at the base of live ash or dying apple trees. I have the most luck finding them in abandoned orchards because they show up better against green grass.
Once harvested, morels must be soaked in salt water so all the little critters who love to hide in the crevices will exit. Then they can be sliced and cooked like any other mushroom. Again, while there are many recipes to be found, my family’s favorite way to eat them is simple. We like them floured and fried.
Asparagus are the last of the spring specials to find their way to my table. They are planted by birds who eat the berries of mature plants and then pass the seeds through their digestive tracts. Any place a bird can perch and poop is a good place to look for asparagus. I have pretty good luck looking in fence rows, or in fields under electric or telephone lines. The secret is to note the tall yellow fronds in the fall when they are easy to spot. Then, in the spring, you’ll know where to start your search. Even knowing the general location, spring asparagus can be tricky to find. They blend in pretty well with the green grass around them, so be patient and slow.
Asparagus are a featured dish in almost every spring magazine. They are a versatile veggie and can be sauced, sautéed and seared. Because I want to savor their distinctive green flavor, I like to roast mine in a little olive oil or steam them in the microwave and serve them with fresh butter and sea salt.
So, when the first warm rays of a spring sun beckon, grab a walking stick and a poke (the mountain term for sack). After whetting your appetite with a long hike, you will enjoy the fruits of your search and the first taste of spring.