- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

As the weather grows warmer and the days longer, my thoughts turn to gardening and all the unusual vegetables that spring brings.

My own back yard will yield little other than weeds, but I anticipate farmers markets, community gardens and produce aisles coming alive with such delicacies as piquant ramps and spiky dandelion greens.

Nowhere is the arrival of spring produce celebrated more than in West Virginia. Across the state, festivals herald the emergence of pungent wild leeks, also known as ramps, from the woods of Appalachia.

“Our parents always gave us ramps in the springtime,” says Brenda Pritt, founder of the International Ramp Cook-off and Festival held each April in Elkins, W.Va.

Considered a seasonal tonic, the vegetable reputedly stimulates dormant appetites and opens sinuses long blocked by winter’s chill.

Physically resembling a scallion in size, ramps possess small white bulbs; slender pink stalks; and broad, green leaves. They emit a powerful odor, calling to mind a combination of onions and garlic. As the saying goes, for strong aroma and potent taste, nothing beats a ramp.

Their robust flavor complements such foods as potatoes, peas, asparagus and salmon. However, at ramp feeds such as the annual Ramson Ramp Feed in Richwood, W.Va., they are cooked in bacon fat and served alongside ham, beans, potatoes and corn bread.

At the International Ramp Cook-off in Elkins, they crop up in everything from burgers and spaghetti to hardtack candy, says Miss Pritt, who is also executive director of the Randolph County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

While I first stumbled across ramps at a farmers market, I learned about two of spring’s quirky bounty — field-grown rhubarb and morel mushrooms — by poking around my neighbors’ grounds.

Retired vintners and funnel cake vendors Frank and Jane Wilmer grow a prolific patch of ruby-red rhubarb on their 30-acre southeastern Pennsylvania farm. From April to June, they cut the tall, celerylike stalks off at the base, remove the toxic green leaves, rinse off the dirt, slice and bake the tart perennial in pies and compotes.

Although botanically a vegetable, rhubarb has masqueraded as a fruit since 1947. That year, the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, N.Y., deemed it a fruit because of the manner by which it is eaten. In the United States, rhubarb is traditionally coupled with strawberries and baked in desserts, particularly pies. In fact, its popularity as a pie filling has garnered it the nickname “pie plant.”

Elsewhere, rhubarb retains its vegetable identity and appears in savory dishes. In Poland, it is cooked with potatoes and spices. It turns up in stews in Iran and with spinach in Afghanistan.

For Jane Wilmer, the simplest recipe, a compote, remains her favorite way to prepare rhubarb. She advises placing four cups of rhubarb, cut in 2-inch pieces, and one cup of granulated sugar, to lessen the plant’s intense tartness, into a Dutch oven or medium-size pot.

Add enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, then simmer uncovered over low heat. Once the rhubarb is soft and its juices crimson, remove from the stove, cool slightly and serve. “It’s great with vanilla ice cream,” she says.

My introduction to morels came one warm spring evening when Frank Wilmer wandered up my gravel driveway with a plastic bag filled with 3-inch-high, beige, honeycombed mushrooms in hand. They were morels from the woods behind his house, he said.

A member of the same fungus species as the truffle, morels flourish in springtime woods and fields. “Their moonscape monoliths and Marge Simpson hairdo shapes make them unmistakable compared to other edible mushrooms and the poisonous ones,” Mr. Wilmer said.

As a tentative and fledgling mushroom hunter, I stick to purchasing morels. Similar to rhubarb, they pop up in farmers markets and produce departments from April through June. Cultivated morels can be found off-season, but they lack the rich, woody fragrance and smoky, nutty tang of their wild brethren.

Whether buying wild or farmed, look for darker-colored caps and an overall fresh appearance. Generally, the darker the color, the stronger the taste. Be sure to wash them carefully before cooking, since dirt and insects may lurk deep within the cavernous tops.

Morels create a delicious sauce for chicken as well as pasta. Paired with portobellos and porcinis, they make a delectable mushroom stroganoff. Sauteed in butter, they are transformed into a scrumptious side dish.

My dealings with dandelions date to childhood and the countless summers spent helping my father pluck them from his otherwise pristine lawn. Long considered his nemesis in the quest for the perfect yard, this yellow-topped intruder was more than a just pesky weed. Had we started our culling in the spring, before this edible plant bloomed, it would have bestowed us with a bountiful harvest of nutritious greens.

Little did we know of the culinary uses and dietary benefits of dandelion greens. The zesty, jagged-edged leaves can be tossed into a salad to spice up lettuce. Topped with hot bacon dressing, they can stand alone on the salad plate. When steamed or sauteed with garlic and olive oil, they function as a tangy substitute for spinach. Dandelion greens contain more iron and calcium than spinach. Additionally, they are a wonderful source of vitamins A and C.

Wild dandelion greens are available at markets throughout the spring. A milder, cultivated variety is sold off-season. If picking your own, look for young plants with bright green, crisp leaves and an absence of flowers.

Spring ushers in a multitude of delights, but for me, it brings no better gift than its bevy of quirky produce. Bite into a robust ramp casserole, tart rhubarb compote, woodsy morel saute or bittersweet dandelion salad, and you, too, will see why these offbeat seasonal offerings appeal so much to me.

Rhubarb crisp

1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, plus butter for greasing baking dish

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1½ teaspoons cinnamon, divided

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

4 cups of rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces

Juice of half a lemon

3/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

½ cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup rolled oats

Vanilla or strawberry ice cream

Grease a 9-by-9-inch baking dish and set aside.

In a bowl, mix together granulated sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ginger. Place rhubarb in baking dish, then sprinkle sugar mixture and juice of half a lemon over the top.

In another bowl, mix together brown sugar, remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon, flour and rolled oats. Using your fingers, break up 1/4 cup butter in small pieces and add to dry ingredients.

With a fork, mix butter, oats, sugar and flour together until well combined. Sprinkle topping evenly over rhubarb. Place baking dish in pre-heated 375-degree oven. Bake until crust has browned and rhubarb is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Serve with a scoop of vanilla or strawberry ice cream. Makes 6 servings.

Ramp casserole

This recipe comes from “Follow Your Nose … Ramp Festival Gourmet Ramp Recipes,” a compendium of the International Ramp Cook-off and Festival contestant recipes. The cookbook is published by and available at the Randolph County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Elkins, W.Va.

3 tablespoons butter, plus butter for greasing baking dish

8 medium bunches ramps, diced in 1-inch pieces (see note)

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 tablespoon oil

2 cups fresh bread crumbs

Butter a medium-size baking dish. Heat remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a large frying pan. Add ramps and garlic and cook over moderate heat until tender, about five minutes. Pour in cream and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Stir mixture together and pour into prepared baking dish.

In the same frying pan, heat oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add bread crumbs and saute, stirring constantly, until they reach a golden brown, about 3 minutes. Top casserole with bread crumbs and remaining cheese then bake uncovered in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until hot. Serves 6 to 8.

Note: Ramps are generally bundled in groups of 8 or 10, like scallions.

Mushroom stroganoff

1 large white onion, peeled and quartered

3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved

4 ounces morel mushrooms

4 ounces porcini mushrooms

8 ounces portobello mushrooms

10 ounces white button mushrooms

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon curry powder

1 tablespoon paprika

About 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

2 teaspoons sea salt

3 tablespoons dry sherry

8 ounces light sour cream

Cooked linguine or egg noodles

Peel and quarter onion. Peel and halve garlic. Place both in a food processor or blender. Process to puree. Clean and remove stalks from mushrooms. Slice and halve porcini and button mushrooms. Cut morels and portobello into bite-size pieces.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large saute pan then spoon in onion-garlic mixture. Cook over medium heat until softened but not browned. Add butter and remaining oil to pan. After butter melts, add mushrooms and toss ingredients together so that they are well mixed.

Place a lid on the pan and cook until mushrooms are soft and slightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove lid and add nutmeg, curry powder, paprika, white pepper to taste, salt, sherry and sour cream. Stir well.

Heat on medium-low for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until stroganoff is hot and well combined. Serve over cooked linguine or egg noodles. Makes 4 servings.

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