By Karen Cord Taylor
Our dinner last night was typical for us in the spring. We sat down to fava beans, fiddleheads and morel mushrooms sent for my birthday from my sister-in-law. Last week we had soft shell crabs two nights in a row because they are so good, and their season is short. I haven’t found ramps this year, but finally shad roe appeared at our small, local grocery store.
While these foods are touted in magazines and cookbooks as part of the local food movement, I am surprised at how many people are unfamiliar with them, don’t like their taste or find them too difficult to deal with.
So, dear readers, this column is about spring recipes.
My husband and I think we hunt down foods like this because we grew up on farms, foraged in the woods, knew at an early age where food comes from and got over any squeamishness that might have lurked about.
When I was a young, inexperienced cook, I served Julia Child’s braised tongue in madeira sauce to dinner guests who exclaimed how good it was. One person asked what we were eating.
When I answered, most stopped.
Later, my father-in-law packed up in dry ice several pheasants he had shot and shipped them to us. Having learned from the tongue experience, we invited only friends who we knew could handle wild birds.
One spring when that same father-in-law sent a mess of morels from his Midwestern woods, we invited a sophisticated couple who had never heard of them for brunch where they featured prominently. Our friends looked as if we were going to poison them, but they gamely tried them. They were as hooked on morels as we were. A couple of years later, when mushrooms sprang from new mulch they had had delivered to their courtyard a couple of weeks before, they recognized them, invited us over to pick, and we all had a morel feast.
One summer we spent a vacation with several friends in Westport, MA. At the beach my Midwestern husband and I picked a bucketful of blue-black mussels off the rocks, steamed them with lemon and herbs and served them to our New England city-raised friends, who had never heard of them. After that, everyone picked them off the rocks and we had them about every night until we left.
That was then – before eating local, seasonal and even historical food like tongue was trendy and popular. Even now it isn’t easy to find these foods. Whole Foods doesn’t regularly carry tongue. Soft shell crab makes it to some restaurants menus, but it is only at Boston’s private clubs that you can regularly find shad roe. Nobody serves fava beans. Like quinces, another historical food, they take too long to prepare, I guess.
You can find recipes for all these foods online easily so I won’t bore you. But I’ll give you a few tips.
Morels. They are easily the best tasting mushrooms in the world. Few shops carry them, and when they do they’re usually dried out and expensive. My sister, who still lives in the Midwest, finds them for free in the woods. My sister-in-law orders them from Wisconsin. When they arrive, split them in half, wash and clean them because you’ll find a few bugs. Use them in pasta, over toast or flour them lightly and cook them in butter until crisp.
Fava beans. Remove them from the pod. Slip them into boiling water for a minute or two. Plunge them into ice to stop the cooking. When they are cool, slip off the skins to reveal bright green beans with a lovely taste. A bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil is all they need. In English grocery stores, where they are sometimes called broad beans, you can get them already out of the pod. I don’t know why the American food-industrial complex hasn’t figured out how to do that here.
Shad roe. Cook bacon, drain most of the fat, then cook the roe in the same pan. This is easy.
Fiddleheads. Trim them, blanch them for a minute or two in boiling water and then sauté with garlic or shallots.
Soft shell crabs. Have the butcher trim them, roll them in corn meal and then sauté. I never do this as well as a couple of restaurants I know. So we usually order them at those restaurants.
Tongue. Go to Julia Child’s recipes. She’ll teach you everything you need to know. But I imagine you won’t bother.