When Spring Sets the Table
The wild garlic chives are up, which means the garlic mustard won’t be far behind. I’m also keeping an eye out for ramps, though I’ve not recognized these pungent harbingers of spring yet. There are also dandelion greens, and in a few more weeks, purslane, plantain, and stinging nettles. Soon we’ll be putting napkins ‘round our necks and poking silverware into our back pockets before setting off for a meadow walk. We apologize in advance for the smell of our breath these next several weeks.
The best time to pick dandelion greens for eating is before their flat yellow disk-like blooms open up (they lean toward bitter after that). I try to remember that as I walk the distance from the front porch to the truck, or head out the back door, eyes focused on the fresh new grass at my feet on my way to feed the rabbits. One must be able to distinguish between so many shades of edible green, and pick carefully. When we harvest the first nettles of spring, to use in soups or in place of spinach in our lasagna, we smartly wear gloves, plunge them into boiling water for a minute or two, and then get on with the rest of the recipe. There’s just nothing like the taste of fresh spring nettles, cooked to remove the sting, and sprinkled with a bit of vinegar and salt.
My maternal grandmother, Opoe (pronounced “oh-poo”. It’s Dutch. I know. Stop laughing—she was a respectable woman), showed us kids what wild purslane looked like and sautéed some for us once when we were visiting her in Tiffin, OH. I remember it's tanginess and how she didn’t skimp on the butter. I saw some growing in between the cracks in the sidewalk in front of our house a few years later, and tried to copy her recipe. Came pretty darn close, and to this day, the look of its oval leaves on thick but tender stems reminds me of her, standing in her kitchen with the sweetest faded apron around her short torso.
With every step, the land we take care of offers up a buffet that unfolds along with the leaves on the yellow maple behind the house from now until, well, year-round really. When we first got here, we weren’t thinking in that direction, planning instead an extensive network of garden plots, indoor seed-starting and coddling of fragile broccoli and cabbage seedlings until it was warm enough to tuck them into the ground we’d just turned up and over. We pretty much trusted anything we planted ourselves, but not what this Grandmother was giving us for free (well, for the price of a monthly mortgage payment and the effort to bend down and pick). Then, one year, don’t know why or what prompted me, I found a book on edible wild plants that was arranged in chapters by season, with pictures and everything, that showed us what we could harvest safely. It even included which plants had poisonous look a-likes, so we could ease into this meadow grazing practice with the caution of beginners, and gently nudge the boundaries of our comfort zone. Patrick was more hesitant than I (not sure what, if any, purslane featured in his childhood), and looked skeptical when I took over the kitchen one afternoon with my gloved hands pushing nettles into the colander for a quick rinse before their two-minute hot bath. But that apprehension fell away when he sat in front of a plate of vegetable lasagna, the bright green pieces of safe-to-eat-now nettles layered with all that ricotta and homemade sauce. I knew I could put garlic mustard in front of him soon, and he’d be fine.
Spring greens are just the beginning. Our sweet and humble layers are in full egg production now, and those garlic chives are mighty tasty chopped and sprinkled on top of this morning’s omelette. As the weeks continue to unfold, we’ll pluck dark purple mulberries from the trees out in the front yard and in the meadow. Sometimes all it takes is a good shake of the branch and the small grape-like clustered berries fall into our mouths and on our heads. Mulberries are the rabbits of the fruit tree world—they multiply with enthusiasm and quite rapidly, and are also rather fragile; several older trees on the land have been knocked down by the strong spring and autumn winds we get here, and the wood is fibrous and splintery. Patrick puts it on the lathe and makes gorgeous little boxes with lids, and when I store my rings or other trinkets there, I remember my purple-stained fingers in mid-May. The birds adore the mulberries too, as evidenced by the purple splotches they leave behind on our front deck. I’m happy to share (and keep a bucket of sudsy water and a scrub mop handy through October). Last count, there were at least twenty-three of these trees on the property. There’s no way we can eat that much.
Then come the red and black raspberries, their silver-backed leaves and thin, graceful vines bending down along both sides of the driveway and brushing the gravel lightly, and thickets of them randomly sprinkled throughout the meadow, mostly beneath the arms of a black walnut by the creek. Their fruits are tiny and in a good season with the right mix of sun and rain, taste delicately sweet rather than bitter. Of course we have balsa wood and pressed cardboard half-pint berry baskets aplenty in the mud room, but even when I remember to grab one on my way out the back door for a walk, I barely cover the bottom with what I pick. Fresh wild raspberries with the occasional dewdrop clinging to them never make it to the basket, and my hands (and teeth) are purple-stained once more.
It’s a sign of our ignorance that we tend to relegate the word “harvest” to autumn only, when our generous land is giving us food all the time. We could gather at least a salad every day, and with additional studying, add the cooked and mashed roots of spring beauties to our plates (harvested with extreme care, and not all from one patch; once the roots are out of the ground, they’re gone and not coming back in that particular spot), as well as wild asparagus, the coveted and elusive morel mushroom, and an entire family of tea-friendly plants that extend beyond the sturdy mint to include strawberry and blackberry leaf, sassafras root, red clover, may apple, mullein, and yellow goat’s beard. For all kinds of sensible reasons, I’ll not venture down the path of medicinal plant recommendations today. It’s not my area of expertise, and I’d rather you all be alive and well to read next week’s post.
Instead, I’ll encourage you, and myself, to rediscover the re-emerging art and practice of foraging, which is essentially the original Mindful Eating movement of our ancestors who were simply trying to survive, and hope you'll share recipes. Though not exactly bears awakening from hibernation, we are hungry for the life-giving tonics that spring so graciously sets upon her table, in full view of our rumbling stomachs, eager taste buds, and grateful hearts.
Napkins tucked under our chins or draped on our laps, it’s time to eat. Who’d like to say grace?