This column is adapted from one that ran in 2008, when we had a bumper crop of morels. That is not the case this year, with this warm, dry spring that has most people delighted. Mushroom hunters are lying low, avoiding the sunshine and praying for rain.
Spring heralds loud and clear right now. Winter is over, and the greening season is in full swing. The flowering plum and weeping cherries fade as apple trees burst into bloom with a hint of pink before they open all white. But all that show distracts from the business below. The morels are coming. The asparagus is shooting up, insistently. And there are ramps in the damp crevices of the woods, with rabbit ear shaped leaves bright green against last year’s brown leaves.
This is just the beginning of the growing season. From now until November we’ll be able to pick from our gardens or the farmers markets all the food that is the essence of right here. The crops will be coming on in quick succession, each with its own urgency — asparagus, strawberries, peas, all the lettuces; then summer vegetables, tender zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, melons, then more zucchini; then fall’s apples, pumpkins and still zucchini. Time to start eating what is grown right here right now.
How different the vegetables taste when they are fresh and local! Take asparagus, just beginning to force its way through the loamy earth. Forget about those rubber banded soldiers all the same height and girth in the grocery stores. Homegrown asparagus is like people, with character and various dimension. It has purple tips and a freshness that snaps in the mouth.
Tait Farm, long ago the mecca for local asparagus, often sells farm-raised asparagus in the Harvest Shop. Call before you go — unless you are going anyway for their wide selection of specialty herb and vegetable plants.
If the weather cooperates and we get some rain, morels will be fruiting with gusto in the woods, for the cognoscenti aware of that fact. If you are game for the hunt, keep your eyes open when you hike. If you are not sure about what you find, take your mushrooms to Webster’s Bookstore Café on Allen Street any Monday between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and have mushroom expert Bill Russell take a look at them. You can also visit his website at www.brmushrooms.com to get the latest information about local mushrooms, including workshops and guided foraging walks with the Central Pa. Mushroom Club. According to Russell, “check under old apple trees and dying elms for the yellow morel, Morchella esculenta.”
Ramps, the esteemed wild leek, are scarce in Centre County, but Revival Kitchen in Reedsville has a cache of them foraged down in Big Valley. Ramps hide deep in the woods, especially in the Allegheny National Forest area, near Kane. Their invigorating and unmistakable allium zip make them worth a hunt.
All three of these spring vegetables can be combined to make a delicious sauce, great for pasta or potatoes, to celebrate the return of the growing season.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (”Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink .com and can be reached at email@example.com.
Spring Vegetables au Gratin
One bunch of wild or tame leeks (if using store bought leeks, just cook the white part)
1/2 pound of morels or other mushrooms
1/2 pound of asparagus
2 tablespoons butter, divided
6 medium sized potatoes, cooked whole with skin, then peeled
2 cups Bechamel Sauce
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk, warm
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
▪ Melt butter in skillet and whisk in flour
▪ Whisk in warmed milk, continuing whisking until thick. Season.
Prepare the ramps: Trim the root end, cut off the green top and slice the slender white and purple stem. Saute the stems in one tablespoon butter until they are tender. Blanch the green tops in salted water and then shock in an ice bath so the color remains bright. Chop the tops.
Prepare the morels: Clean the mushrooms and slice lengthwise. Saute briefly in one tablespoon butter, keeping them crisp. Season lightly with salt and pepper as you cook them.
Prepare the asparagus: If it is local and homegrown, asparagus snaps off where it is supposed to and you won’t have any woody stems. If you are using store-bought asparagus, snap off the woody part of the stem. Blanch them whole, shock and chop.
Assembly: In a large bowl, quarter the potatoes and toss in the cooked ramp stems and tops, the sautéed morels, and the chopped, blanched asparagus. Pour the Bechamel sauce and gently wed the vegetables together. Put the mixture into an au gratin dish or shallow casserole and heat at 350 degrees until warmed through, about 20 minutes.