Friday, May 7, 2010

May Flowers

I can't believe it's already a week into May! Time does fly when one isn't paying attention, doesn't it? They say that April showers bring May flowers. The flowers are indeed glorious, but I cannot say that April was particularly wet. Snowy, maybe...

No worries though! The all-around mild weather we've had here in Eastern Canada has been mostly beneficial for all farmers. Many crops were planted weeks ahead of schedule, and others are hitting market stalls much earlier than in previous years.

In Quebec, the first strawberries (grown under poly-tunnels, and in my mother's garden) have already started flowering, and are excepted to crop in early June. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, May has much to offer to your inner foodie. First of all, the first week-end of May marks the official opening of Montreal's outdoor farmers' markets. Jean-Talon Market was a glorious sight today: the sky was blue, there were some cumulonimbus zipping across the azure, and a light sprinkling rain was falling. It was beautiful!

What to look for in May:

Asparagus
I was rather green with envy in April when I heard that West Coast asparagus were already up, but the word is out: Quebec asparagus are on the market shelves just in time for Mother's Day. I cannot stress enough that the big, fat spears must be consumed the day of harvest for the absolute best flavour. I realise that most people are used to doing groceries for an entire week, but if asparagus are part of the lot, try to eat them first. If you really have to leave them for later, snap off the woody ends, stick them in a glass with about 3cm/ 1" of water, and keep in the fridge door. They can also be kept wrapped in a damp tea/ paper towel in the vegetable crisper.
If you have yet to meet an asparagus you like, may I suggest you wait a bit for the skinny spears. They are usually produced by younger plants or are a plant's final attempt of the season to put out proper growth. Most large producers avoid sending the skinnies to market, but smaller producers often do: so your chances of purchasing a pack of freshly picked asparagus are greater. I swear you will fall in love!
Asparagus can be eaten raw (only if very fresh), boiled or steamed, or grilled on the barbecue. Serve with a vinaigrette, hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise, or simply with some olive or nut oil and some lemon juice. Asparagus also make great omelettes. They go deliciously with lobster, peas, and morels.
Local asparagus season lasts anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks. There is a small production of white asparagus in Quebec, and purple asparagus are gaining in popularity due to the novelty factor, but personally, faithful ol' green is my favourite.

Morels
Quebec morels have begun popping up, however there still isn't quite enough for foragers to bother bringing them to market. So your best bet for Mother's Day would be West Coast morels or going into the woods yourself...
Morels are known as the king of mushrooms in France: they open the wild mushroom season; are more accessible than the truffle, both in price and in 'forageability'; are very flavourful; and are a perfect match for all the wonders that spring has to offer, not least of which are the other wild foods one may encounter while on the hunt for the fungi.
Morels, like any other wild mushroom, need to be properly washed. Disregard any old wives' tale stating that fungi cannot be dipped in water: wild (and cultivated) mushrooms are quite dirty, and the only way to remove all that dirt is a good, long soak in salty water. The salt is not absolutely necessary, but it will aid in evacuating any foreign beings... Change the bath water a couple of times, until you do not see any more clods of dirt.
Wild mushrooms also benefit from a thorough cooking. While the humble button mushroom passes quite easily through our system, most wild mushrooms can cause some discomfort if not fully cooked. Parboil them for about 5 minutes, then sauté for another 5, or start with the pan-frying and finish with some stock or wine.

Lobsters, North Atlantic Shrimps
The crustaceans are back, and they are very yummy looking indeed!
The shrimps are always sold cooked, since they are boiled in seawater as soon as the nets are hauled onto the fishing vessels. They are sold either whole or peeled. While peeling the tiny shrimps can be labour intensive, it can be very much worth your time and money: they are less expensive than peeled, and they are guaranteed to be unfrozen stock -whereas peeled Atlantic shrimps may or may not be frozen and defrosted (you need to trust your fishmonger here). Plus: if you compost, the shells will really boosted your compost pile, though be forewarned, it can get stinky if you do not dig them in really deep!
Lobster shells are also a boon for the compost heap, although they do take about a year to break down even in a very hot heap. I am assuming that most of you do not buy lobsters or shrimps with your compost pile in mind... (I must admit though, one of the reasons I find giving up shrimps and lobsters so difficult is because I do have compost on the brain ALOT!)
Both lobsters and shrimps are a delight when smothered in mayonnaise (is there anything that isn't delicious with mayonnaise?), but are also very nice with some lemon juice and olive oil (or melted butter...) In salads, these crustaceans are sumptuously paired with peas, tomatoes, avocados and butterhead lettuces. (And asparagus!!) 

Lettuce
Heads of field lettuces from across the country -the entire continent, actually- have hit the shelves. The long, mild spring has been most favourable to these cool weather veg. My lettuce seedlings even emerged  unscathed from last week's dumping of snow (5cm in Montreal, and it took close to 12 hours to melt away completely)!
Spring lettuces are mild in flavour and tender in the mouth. Although there has been an increasing selection of lettuces available year round, buying locally produced lettuces allows you to try different -and often heirloom- varieties, like deertongue, oakleaf (feuille de chêne in French), and other fragile salads that do not travel very well.

Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads are the quintessential spring wild food. Readily available in the frozen section of supermarkets, they are currently found fresh on grocery shelves. While frozen fiddleheads are already parboiled, and only require reheating and seasoning, fresh fern fronds require some prepping. Like any wild food, a thorough washing is necessary. Trim any brown ends, and rub off all fuzz.
There are two ways to cook fiddleheads: you can either plunge them in boiling salty water for 3 minutes, rinse off, and boil in another pot full of clean, boiling water for another 3 minutes. Or you can cook them in a potful of boiling water with 2 generous pinches of baking soda; this methods takes only about 4 minutes, but you must check the fronds just before the time is up(30 to 50 seconds): while this method is fast and effective, the baking soda will make vegetables go fro firm to limp in the blink of an eye. Do not attempt to eat fiddleheads raw or steamed: they need to be fully immersed in water to rid them of oxalic acid, which can be toxic to the liver (and has a disagreeable mouthfeel).
With either method, the ferns must be drained and rinsed under cold water. Fiddleheads can be eaten cold in a salad or on a crudité platter, however they are at their best sautéed in some butter (or oil) with a chopped shallot or small onion, salt and pepper, and the optional drizzle of lemon juice. Fern fronds are also quite scrumptious in a tempura batter, if you can be bothered to deep-fry in your house.

Other wild treats
Wild garlic (aka ramps or wild leeks) are still available at farmers' markets (Jeant-Talon in Montreal, St-Lawrence in Toronto) and are a real treat if you can get your hands on some. They won't be around for very much longer, so jump on them if you find some.
While ramps can be eaten raw, slivered thinly and mixed into a salad or sprinkled like any chopped herbs adding a mild garlicky nip, they really come into their own when served as a full-on vegetable. Boil briefly, cool down in an ice bath or wait until just cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water and dress with a sweet-tart dressing (this miso dressing is rather tasty), or you can use just like you would spinach.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) are a protected species in most areas where it grows, however there are some places where they can still be picked. If your local market has a wild foods stand, you might be able to find some.
The dogtooth lily grows just about everywhere in Southeastern Quebec, while it is a protected plant, some of its territory is threatened by development (most notoriously in Montreal). While I would not advocate anyone to trespass on private property, wooded areas slated for construction are often the perfect place for finding your next dinner... While you're at it, maybe you can dig some bulbs up to plant in your or a friend's garden.
Erythronium can be prepared just like ramps above. In fact, both grow in more or less the same places, and there is a saying the kitchen that goes as follows: if it grows together, it can be eaten together. The first time I ate trout lilies was in Japan with the miso vinaigrette mentioned above. The flowers are so lovely, that one feels almost decadent eating them, making them a true seasonal treat.

Radishes
The peppery roots are back! Crunchy, spicy and sweet, delightful radishes are a great addition to any salad. They really add punch to any dish. If you prefer your food on the less spicy side of things, spring radishes are the thing for you: hot weather makes for hot radishes, whereas cool, wet spring produces milder roots. Radishes are a good foil for a fatty piece of grilled salmon when slivered thinly and doused with some white wine vinegar. They can also be braised in some white wine or water and a generous knob of butter. Serve just like any other braised root vegetable.

Bon app'!



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