Friday, May 8, 2009

Fancy Foothill Treats

No, I didn't bag a succulent spring lamb in the foothills, just the fiddleheads and nettle sauce. The reawakening is moving steadily higher into the mountains, bringing with it culinary goodies that have mostly played out down here at sea level.

For instance, stinging nettles are past their prime around Seattle now. Any taller than a foot or so and they become fibrous, with tougher stems and leaves that can be grainy. But in the foothills above 1,000 feet in elevation they're young and tender. Of course, your mileage may vary. Further south in the Sierra you would need to go higher.

Same goes for the fiddleheads, and this topic deserves some further discussion. While I can't speak to ostrich ferns of the eastern U.S., if you're foraging lady fern fiddleheads, make sure you get them at the earliest possible stage, when they've just emerged from the root cluster and are no more than an inch or two above the ground (see image at right). Sometimes I'll take them a little higher if the fiddleheads are still tightly coiled, but you want to avoid those specimens that have already started to unwind. The further along in the development, the more apt to be bitter. Also, it's worth remembering that fully leafed-out fern fronds are actually toxic.

Here's another tip when harvesting fiddleheads: Soak them in water back at home for a few minutes before removing the papery sheaf. The chaff is easier to rub off when wet.

For this meal I took advantage of a few rambles about town and in the woods. I got the lamb chops from a local butcher, who sources from a small-scale farm. The fiddleheads and nettles came from the foothills. Mint I found growing wild while walking around the neighborhood. I grilled the lamb chops and topped with a creamy nettle-mint sauce. The fiddleheads I boiled for 5 minutes and sauteed in butter. (The following night I sauteed the fiddleheads with chopped shallot and finished with cream and a splash of cognac.)

Nettle-Mint Sauce

Handful of blanched stinging nettles, roughly chopped
Handful of fresh mint, blanched 5 seconds and shocked in cold water
1 shallot, rough cut
3-4 heaping tbsp plain yogurt
lemon juice squeezed from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil, more or less

Process all these ingredients in a food processor. I don't have exact measurements because I pretty much eyeballed it. You want the sauce to be creamy, not pasty like pesto. Hence the yogurt. You can adjust the strength of the mint or nettle flavor however you want. This is just a start; tweak the recipe to your forager's heart's content.

I also spied some oyster mushrooms feasting on a dead alder tree during my foothills ramble. Though too small to be harvested, I know their zip code and will be back.


matt wright said...

LOVE fiddleheads, love nettles. what a perfect combo. Good tips on the fiddles too - never thought about soaking them first.

what butcher do you go to?

Trixi said...

We've been feasting on the oysters up here Bellingham way! Made Szechuan fish with veggie and oyster mushroom stirfry last week. Yum!

sally said...

I've been bagging local nettles since January in the lowlands - nice reminder, duh, that up a bit higher they're still succulent and good forya.

Chris said...

Oh, I'm so delighted to have found your blog and to see you have a book coming out this summer! I just bagged a punch of fiddleheads at the Portland farmers' market this morning and think I'll pull some lamb chops out of the freezer.