by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
It’s a cool windy April day and the sap is still dripping off the taps on the nearby maple trees. I walk around my fields and yard and see very little evidence of spring on the ground other than the crocuses and some pussy willows down in the meadow. I am anxious for more harbingers of change but feel fortunate to see bare ground since many yards not too far away have piles of snow all around. I know that soon there will be bright yellow dandelion flowers popping up all over the lawn with their glorious deep green foliage—the true essence of spring. There will be ramps and fiddleheads too, and these can all be used as a delicious supplement to your meal. There are many other wild spring edibles, such as nettles, violets, and lambs quarters, but dandelions, ramps, and fiddleheads are some of the earliest to appear and are easy to prepare. If you are a newcomer to ramps and fiddleheads, search for them with a knowledgeable person who knows how to identify and prepare them because they are not all safe to eat and you don’t want to be eating the wrong foods in the wild.
Dandelions are one of the most hated backyard weeds in this country but all around the world many cultures love this edible green. The word “dandelion” originates from the French name “dent de lion,” due to the serrated leaf’s supposed resemblance to a lion’s tooth. In the spring these tender young leaves make a delicious salad. The key thing to remember is that they are only sweet and delectable before the flowers bloom; once the warm days of summer arrive the leaves become increasingly bitter and tough, and not so tasty. Even spring dandelion greens have some bitterness but a couple things can be done to ameliorate this: wash the greens thoroughly, then blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes and chill them. They can also be cooked with onions, garlic, and a little salt for 5 to 10 minutes. After blanching or cooking they can be added to pasta or rice dishes, served plain, or with a sauce. A recipe follows at the end of the article.
Dandelion greens have a good amount of vitamin A, antioxidants, fiber, and potassium. All parts of the dandelion can be used today: flowers for making wine, roots for the treatment of hepatitis by herbalists, and leaves for salads and other delectable dishes. Don’t let this plentifully available weed go to waste—give it a chance to enter your spring vegetable menu.
Ramps or, as they are often referred to, wild leeks, are welcome harbingers of spring. They are found in the carpet of deciduous woods in rich sandy soil. I first started looking for them in the woods a couple years ago with a neighbor who knew where they could be found. I find many people can be secretive about their sources since they do not want them all to be dug up by others—they are a delicacy and if not used selectively can easily disappear forever. In fact in Quebec, Canada, there is now legislation protecting ramps due to overforaging. Individuals are limited to harvesting 50 bulbs at a time for their own personal use and it is illegal to sell them for commercial use. Each time a ramp is removed from the forest floor before it goes to seed, its life cycle ends. The seed on the ramp does not usually appear until the fall. If you are familiar with an area where ramps grow do not pick a whole bunch of them at one site, rather pick a selected few so that they can continue to multiply and reseed.
The whole ramp can be used in food preparation, including the bulb root. The ramp is a good source of vitamin A, fiber, folic acid, and potassium, and also provides some selenium and manganese. My favorite way to prepare them is sautéed in olive oil by themselves or with other vegetables, or with potatoes or eggs.
Fiddleheads are the furled sprouts of a young fern, specifically the ostrich fern. If you have never looked for these before, go with someone who knows the specific plant well since many young ferns can be poisonous. Don’t throw your hands in despair if you can’t get out there to harvest them yourself since now they are so popular that they can often be found at the Co-op. Fiddleheads should not be eaten raw since there have been numerous reports of food poisoning. They should be harvested when they are small and curled up—just about 6 to 10 inches high. Wash them well and remove the yellow brown papery skin before preparing them. They should be boiled for 15 minutes or steamed for 10 to 12 minutes before adding them to pasta or stir-fries or other vegetable, meat, or fish combinations. The cooking process removes toxins and also decreases bitterness. Fiddleheads are a good source of omega-3 and 6 fats as well as potassium, iron, and fiber. They provide a variety of antioxidants too.