(originally published April 2006 – spring vegetables are timeless, so here’s an article from a dozen years back)
Asparagus. Ramps. Morels. Rhubarb. What else is there to say?
The hardest part of this menu is capturing the ingredients. Of course, without a well-timed garden and a knack for wild-foraging, you’ll have to do some shopping. Whole Foods stocked asparagus, ramps, morels, and rhubarb last spring, and I have seen those four at Giant Eagle as well. In case the local retailers lag, a retail online specialty food store called Earthy Delights supplies exactly these kinds of ingredients.
Fresh asparagus is spring’s most divine food. Bursting from the ground, shooting towards the new sun, aching to be picked and eaten, you must consume it as close to harvest as humanly possible. You owe it to yourself as a reward for surviving another brutally gray Western Pennsylvania winter. I remember last year meeting one of my farmers early one Saturday morning to get the very first harvest so I could run it around to the restaurants for dinner that evening. I nibbled raw stalks as I drove around Pittsburgh, dickering with the chefs at all of our restaurants as to how much each of their shares of the bounty should be and why did they not get more.
Ramps are brash and rude. My ramp-finding-spot, located along a stream on some Western PA Conservancy land (where I never harvest, only observe) develops a great onion/garlic stink even before the leaves of the ramps have cleared the ground. They appear along with trillium, a pretty little 3-petaled white flower above three leaves, as a pair of long, spade-shaped dark green leaves. Once you chomp a raw ramp, you’ll easily be able to find them in the wild by smell. [Please never harvest wild foods on protected land and never, ever harvest the entirety of any wild crop. Pick just a little and leave the rest to propagate. Preservation of our beautiful Western Pennsylvania environment for the future should be of utmost importance to anyone interested in wild edibles.]
Morels are more mysterious. I subscribe to a mushroom forager e-mail discussion group that has been consumed with morel discussions lately. As of the very end of March, no local morels had been spotted. They need the correct terroir, humidity, and temperature to appear and sometimes have a very short season. I hound the foragers every early spring, begging for the first morels. Hopefully they will appear by the next week or so. I have never found any wild. Chanterelles, oysters, hen-of-the-woods, sure. But no morels. I must mention that eating wild mushrooms is a game for experts. Even with my familiarity with the edible species, I do not eat the wild mushrooms I find. If you feel you must go a-foraging, go with an expert.
Rhubarb seems to grow along every fence row and back porch throughout rural areas of the state. It is easy to grow but does tend to take over an area. Grow some. Just don’t eat the leaves. The mild sourness of the stalks is due to oxalic acid which is highly concentrated in the leaves. It is toxic in large doses in people but does just fine in the compost heap. I love having rhubarb in great quantities and will make enough jam to last through the year.