In the north country, spring foraging is one of life’s little pleasures.
The earliest greens that can be enjoyed come right out of the meadows, like early dandelion greens or from along Maine’s riverbanks. Now, per riverbanks,I’m talking about fiddleheads. Just after the dandelions go to bloom come fiddlehead ferns. Fiddleheads are the tightly furled shoot of the ostrich fern, reminiscent of the scroll on an instrument, are usually just right to harvest around Mother’s Day. At my restaurant, the Pine Cone Cafe, it was the most requested Mother’s Day treat and we always had it on our brunch menu in May as a rich quiche.
It’s important to be certain of a few things: One, make sure you have the right fern. The wrong one can make you sick. Two, be sure your harvest comes from a very clean area, waterside. There is no sense in eating wild food if it’s not from a clean area. Three, never take it all. We want to replenish the wild areas as the plants presence there serves many purposes, not just ours. Don’t trespass. Don’t eat this fern raw. All that said, fiddleheads have long been a part of a Maine spring and are good in stir fries, quiches, pickled, and so on.
Have ready one unbaked pie shell, your favorite recipe
2 tb soft butter
1-1/2 cup chopped white onion, pinch of salt
2 cups fiddleheads, cleaned of all brown papery stuff, washed twice, drained and steamed until bright
2 cups shredded farmhouse sharp cheddar
Salt, pepper and freshly ground nutmeg
6 eggs, beaten well
1-1/2 cup half and half or light cream
Make a custard of the beaten eggs and cream. Set aside.
Saute the onion until lightly browned, add salt , pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Toss with the cooled, cooked fiddleheads.
Pile into the uncooked pie shell, top with the cheese.
Pour the custard over all, don’t overfill if the custard is too generous. Dust lightly with paprika.
Bake at 350 degrees on a cookie sheet for about 40 minutes or until puffed and set in the center.
Let it rest for a half hour before slicing. Goes well with a crisp salad.
This is a little story about when I was six. My mother was a PA farm girl, studying for her nursing degree in Philadelphia, my Dad a city boy from Philly. He was recently out of the Army and at Temple University on the GI bill. When their worlds collided, they married. Back then there was a huge push towards something new, Suburbia!
My father bought into a brand new development called Cherry Hill, a sweet little house on a decent sized lot with lots of unspoiled woods and meadow around back. Formerly, and remnants still remain, it was rich farmland and horse country. The Garden State, right? We lived there until I graduated high school.
My early days were spent helping my Mother and Grandmother hang out laundry, iron dad’s white shirts, make mud pies and top them with flowers. I should have had an inkling then that food would be my passion.
When Granddad visited with Grandma the focus changed to foraging over housekeeping or making pies. “Hunting” for dandelions was what he called it. One fine spring day, much like this day in May, with Mother’s permission we set out the back door, down the hill to the creek, forged it and up the hill we went into a meadow. I remember it well, although it wasn’t long for this world, as it was earmarked to become a row of upscale track housing. Sadly, it was the last time I recall my grandfather too, as he got sick and passed away fairly soon after.
But then he was hale, handsome and hearty and hell bent on a sack of greens to bring home for my Grandmother, Laura’s hot dandelion greens with bacon. And at that time, the meadow, ringed with old growth trees, was awash in daisies in bud and loads of dandelions before their flowers showed.
Grandpa George showed me how to identify the greens. With his sharp jack knife, he’d pop them out of the ground by the root, also being good to eat, clean them in the field so as not to bring dirt into the kitchen… and Grandma did the rest. I remember those greens done up Pennsylvania Dutch style, cooked until bright green, then dressed with a sharp hot bacon vinaigrette. Grandma called them a Spring tonic.
It was an acquired taste but we loved everything about cooking something we’d “hunted” for… and we still do.
Imagine yourself in Paris on an early spring day, it’s drizzling and the streets are slick with a warm rain…the kind of rain that gentles spring flowers to pop into view. The trees are just greening, small leaves unfurling. You’re on the street, looking at maps with a few student/friends. You’re all seeking a culinary adventure. It’s mid-day and everyone’s hungry.
I was a culinary student at La Varenne in the early 1990’s, one of just a few women in the class. The women in training together became fiercely close as a way of combatting the overwhelmingly male atmosphere. We were hell bent on our success and on wringing the most out of our time in an eternal city. Especially in the realm of culinary experience.
Imagine that one of you has “heard of a place” …it’s been so many years that I now can’t recall the name of it. We strike out to find it. We arrive, the restaurant is gilded in a Belle Epoque way, yet seems acessable and full of diners. There are cute older couples intent on their meals and each other. Fancy ladies with their little dogs….formidable looking waiters who have made a career of this. We’re seated, it’s a miracle. Whoa, looks like we’re going to spend some money but it’s going to be memorable.
We ordered Cremant and a seafood tower, way before they were hip. One friend had a Salad Riche with foil gras and spring greens, heaven on a plate! Another, a lamb stew with spring onions, while a potted canard was another excellent choice. I had Lapin, or the rabbit, presented stewed in the style of a recipe I’ve shared, (See Seasonal Recipes – Lapin a la Moutarde) with turned vegetables (French kitchen “busy work”), young carrots and green chives. A perfect blend of warming and spring thinking.
Ah, April in Paris… a student then, and really, still a student of life.
It’s tradition to say Rabbit, Rabbit at the beginning of each month. I am not sure why.
But, truly in the springtime, a rabbit fricassee over wide noodles with a touch of woodland or garden herbs and grainy mustard transports me to in Paris in April.
Rabbit hasn’t caught on in popularity in America like in France. It tasted mild, much the same as poultry. Honestly, cutting up a rabbit is not harder than cutting up a chicken, once you get over the fact that it’s a rabbit. The technique is much the same: dredging in seasoned flour, a little sautéed shallot, turn once when brown, remove meat and deglaze with white wine, mustard and heavy cream or creme fraiche. Add in fresh chopped thyme, ramps or rosemary at the end to keep it bright.
Served over wide noodles with a big salad, one couldn’t ask for more on a blustery early spring day….for lunch, at a bistro in Paris!
Here is a recipe we prepared when I was a student at La Varenne, in Burgundy,France:
Lapin a la Moutarde
1 small, dressed rabbit, cut into 8 pieces.
Flour, salt and pepper…a little paprika for color
1/2 cup avocado oil
Combine the flour and seasonings, Dredge the rabbit in the flour and set aside. Heat the oil on a medium heat.
1 cup, chopped shallot
2 cups dry white wine, 2 cups rich chicken broth
1 TB whole grain mustard, 2 fresh thyme springs and fresh rosemary or chopped ramps or chives, added last..
1 pound of wide egg noodles, cooked al dente. Keep warm.
Fry the rabbit in medium hot oil, turning once until just cooked through, salt lightly, and set to drain on paper towels.
Pour off most of the oil, and sauté the shallot in the same pan, deglaze with wine and broth, check seasonings. Add the mustard and creme fraiche or heavy cream, and place rabbit back into the pan, cook covered over a low heat for 45 minutes to an hour. Stir occasionally and add more broth if it seems to need it.
When it’s time to serve, choose an impressive platter (make it warm). Add the noodles and top with the rabbit pieces. Taste the gravy and add more creme fraiche and the herbs… give it a stir and pour over the rabbit and noodles. I add even more spring chives and their deconstructed blossoms to the top, to garnish.
Choose a crisp, white Burgundy and enjoy a hearty lunch with friends. Is that the Eiffel Tower I see?
Many people in my midcoast town don ’t realize that many of their forebearers were of Finnish decent. There is a road in town called Finntown Road, so it seems pretty clear to me! Then consider the legacy of Wyeth paintings with interesting Finnish models, which are known and treasured worldwide!
It was pointed out to me by an elderly but still vibrant Finnish gentleman that, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see many old and sometimes repurposed saunas on farmsteads up and down Finntown Road. Thinking back, some of my first Waldoboro memories are of being offered Pulla, a Finnish egg and cardamon rich braided Christmas bread by my restaurant baker, who was born here.
In the past several years I have gotten to be friends with a wonderful Finnish couple, Leo and Erja. Leo was born in NYC and Erja was born in Finland. But they live and love life as if in the old country. Traditional cooking, building, decor language and lifestyle all inherent in the way they live life. Daily winter sauna, dips in an icy hole in the lake afterwards, fish for breakfast and love of a hearty lifestyle,camping and wood heat. Their home is bright, clean and simple. Also build by Leo, as is their camp and sauna, road….you name it!
Hearty Finnish Breakfast Fare
If you’re fortunate enough to have Finnish friends, you’ll experience real hospitality. And good, clean fun! To take a Finnish style sauna, you begin in the morning, after a hearty breakfast of soft cooked duck eggs, sautéed greens and smoked salmon…. and build a wood fire, which must be looked after all day. When you’ve brought plenty off water to the sauna and all your bathing/scrubbing accouterments, you strip down and relax. When the heat and scrubbing become too much,the icy lake beckons. Erja once achieved her 15 minutes of fame in Yankee magazine, photographed smiling while sitting on the side of a hole in the ice, legs dangling into the frigid water. There’s nothing like it for a good night’s sleep.
Researching the Finnish food faves, I realized that their native Bilberry is very similar to Maine’s wild blueberry and is used interchangeably. Blue through and through unlike our Blueberry, the Bilberry has double the antioxidants. It’s wonderful for eyesight, they say. Also similar to Maine’s woods culture is their Reindeer stew, called Karelian Stew, similar to Leo’s favorite venison stew which Erja makes so well and is popular in Maine with anyone who hunts. Leo is well into his 90’s and presents as a 70 year old man.
Happy, healthy, traditional. It’s a great way to go!
The flavor profile in these is reminiscent of some of my favorite foods from China, although I am told by a close friend who lived for a time in China, Dr. Jane Liedtke, the Egg Roll is as American as it gets. More traditionally, Peking duck is wrapped in a “bing”, or wrapper with Hoisin sauce, scallion, etc. for a delicious part of the duck dinner. These egg rolls stand in for us home cooks in America.
Supposedly, making the wrappers is as easy as making pasta. Also, you can purchase perfectly good ones to produce these. The filling is open to inspiration, I like a bit of star anise in mine.
FILLING INGREDIENTS | Makes a dozen
Shredded cabbage and carrot, to equal 2 cups
Mung bean sprouts, minced celery and green onion to equal 2 cups
2 cups cooked, shredded duck meat, chopped fine
1 large beaten egg, cooked and chopped
Season with a bit of garlic, star anise, salt , pepper, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil & Asian chili sauce to taste.
Dust with cornstarch, 1 tb or a bit more if it seems wet . Mix all together and let rest.
BUILD THE ROLLS
Make a slurry of cornstarch and water for sealing the sides of rolls
Each egg roll gets 3 tb of meat, egg and vegetable mixture.
Roll tightly, sealing the sides with the cornstarch mixture. Set aside.
PREPARE TO FRY EGG ROLLS
You will need a heavy fry pan, with high sides …or a wok. You will also need some sesame or avocado oil, your egg roll wrappers and plenty of paper towels.
We’re shallow frying these, so we don’t need really deep oil, just about 3 inches in the pan.
Preheat oil and add a few rolls at a time, do not crowd. Flip once to get a golden brown all over.
Drain and sprinkle with flaky salt.
We enjoy these right out of the oil with a Hoisin or Duck Sauce and very hot mustard!
China is a place I’d always wanted to go. I am glad I visited, but would I want to return? Likely not, due in part to the level of pulmonary distress I experienced by the end of a month of travel there. And this was almost ten years ago. In places the coal soot covered everything and the day never really dawned. Not the best atmosphere to practice deep breathing and Qi Gong, which was part of my reason for being there.
I feel that I had the rare opportunity to view perhaps the last of the real remaining China, which required an entire two days train ride into the interior. Let me tell you, you don’t know “nasty” until you finally have to pee on a Chinese train, 17 hours in….
Traveling in the Chinese countryside was a gift and a conundrum at every turn. For instance, finally making it to the Great Wall at Badaling in the Yanqing District….and finding a brand new Starbucks right there. Then the further humiliation of making a beeline to it for a double Cappuccino because we were oh so tired of green tea. Finding out your Chinese Chi Gong master was a former Communist general and liked plum wine just a little too much! Or driving to see a Beijing Hutong district just as it was being torn down to make way for progress. The classic Peking duck dinner that followed, however, did not disappoint. Served on the traditional lazy Susan round table, it was everything I’d hoped it would be, with a million condiments and super crispy duck skin.
Sunday morning Dim Sum? Amazing. Chrysanthemums blooming in your teapot, of course! Seeing an enormous snake sunning on a rock way up in the mountains? I’ll never forget it’s majesty understanding what a rarity this was. Being in a truly remote place to forest bathe and meditate, by a waterfall? Picture perfect, unforgettable. How can I forget our stay at a Communist “Luxury” Hotel with a very funny buffet. The food in its chafing dishes had labels like, FRIES THE BEAN GREEN right next to the CHICKEN STOMACHS and STINKY TOFU.
Then there was the pearl market, where I got conned into believing river pearls were deep sea pearls (Oh, you have such good taste Mrs. Cabot!) and the apothecaries that were truly varied and impressive. Ditto the spice markets. We took tea and had lessons in tea ceremony with Monks. Viewed ancient prayer trees covered in red ribbons and tree peonies the likes which I’d never imagined. We climbed a million steps to temples in the sky. And unforgettably were allowed access to a very rare, ancient monastery where I sat in meditation. No Westerner had ever been there. I made an offering, asked for illumination and heard all the sorrows of the world. This was an experience so moving, so real and so unexpected that I sat cross-legged in that cave in silence and cried for a long, long time. I emerged a wiser and more compassionate person. China was good to me.