The winter was long and dreary. Yup, totally not an original statement. I am still not entirely sure if it is aging or actual changes in winter, but it feels like winters are getting harder in my beloved Midwest. Not necessarily in terms of snow, although Chicago did enjoy a 2′ in one day blizzard that buried my car so completely I could only see 1” of it after the snow plows came through, but in terms of the grey. The never… ending… grey… The cold that keeps a harsh snap way past any time that seems sane, though you know it happens every year. And for me, personally, in case the lack of writing wasn’t obvious, it was never… ending… work. Work is good, absolutely! I am lucky to have it. But being a studio of one, a freelancer, I piled on too much, deadlines slid around, and suddenly I found myself sitting in front of my computer for 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week, cultivating that translucent pallor enjoyed by the most dedicated of gamers. And my nutritional intake… well it was beginning to be on par with those gamers. For all my wailing about ‘there is always time for food,’ I wasn’t making that time. I was eating crap. Constant takeout. Skipping meals, only to binge on some processed snack late in the night. And I am feeling it. Mind, body, and soul.
Enter Wisconsin. Well not really. I entered Wisconsin. Wisconsin pretty much stays where it is. Every year my family does a giant gathering in southwest Wisconsin, which coincidentally happens to be the most fertile farmland in the country. I have no scientific basis for that, I just have the evidence of my own eyes as I drive through and raid every food coop I can get near. This is the part of the country I grew up in, where I thought all cows happily grazed on grass all over rolling hillsides. I had called my Mom the week before to ask if her lone asparagus plant was up already, and had she cooked any. She swiftly replied “oh you know that never makes it into the house.”
You see, if you have never beheld an actual asparagus plant in spring, you are missing out. Asparagus is one of those magical vegetables that heralds the final arrival of spring in the Midwest. It’s the first really edible green thing we see, and after months of grey, we fall all over ourselves eating this marvelous chlorophyll-laced tribute to the lengthening, warming days. And if you have ever stood in front of an asparagus plant, snipped a stalk straight off, and ate it straight away, well… it would never make it into your kitchen, either. I couldn’t pilfer any of my mother’s asparagus, but I did manage to find fresh local bunches of it at the local food coop, glorious in their short trip from farm to store.
Next up, the ramp. This is something I had never heard of growing up. They are purely wild, can’t really be cultivated. Ramps are a strange sort of wild onion, pungent and fragrant, appearing only for a few weeks and POOF! Gone. They smell marvelous, and need to be treated with some respect, as their flavor is ultimately quite delicate and can get lost.
And finally… the mythical morel. Everyone at this point seems to know about morel mushrooms. Another one of those wild foods that simply can not be cultivated. People hunt them every year, and do not reveal the locations they find them in. Somewhere I imagine there are wills out there, revealing spots solely to the most trusted loved ones, but only after the original finder has passed. I have yet to ever find a morel, but I found the next best thing this year. Deep in the rolling hills of the Coulee Region live many, many Amish families. There is one in particular I visit every year to get maple syrup from. This year, the grandson had found morels, and they were selling them, for far less than a schmancy Whole Foods would. I can’t tell you my source, as it’s almost as valuable to me as if I had found them myself deep in the woods. And so I eagerly snatched up the last container, paid the nice woman, and ran.
Once back in Chicago, it was time to assemble my tribute to spring. I had some heirloom flint cornmeal I had picked up the previous year from a farmer’s market, and decided to make polenta. I added no parmesan, no cheese of any sort, I wanted it to be as straight up as possible (but not without considerable quantities of butter.)
While the polenta slowly burbled away (I use a brilliant method by Deborah Madison that takes a little longer, but does not require constant stirring,) I snapped the tough ends of the asparagus off, sniffing the juicy fresh green. The morels were soaked lightly to rid them of any hidden passengers, and simply sliced lengthwise. Their earthy pepperiness filled my small kitchen. A few ramps were minced, adding to the light scents floating about.
A bit of butter and olive oil was heated in my ancient cast iron skillet, and first went in the morels. The butter and olive oil bubbled appreciatively at their arrival. A pinch of salt, a grind of pepper, and they very kindly proceeded to brown up, that earthy smell intensifying with every sizzle. When they were almost done, I popped in the ramps and the asparagus, letting the perfume of the ramps wreath through the morels while the asparagus brightened into that impossible green born of heat. A dash of vinegar was splashed on, brightening the whole melange just a bit more.
The polenta had been cooling in a dish. I sliced it into thick slabs and added it to the skillet, letting the pieces fry and get golden crusts. These were swiftly plated, and the vegetables poured over. A quick finishing sprinkle of salt, and done. It may have dropped to 40 that May night, but in my kitchen, spring had finally arrived.
Polenta (from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Suppers)
1 c. polenta
1 quart water
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. butter (optional)
1 c. grated Parmesan (optional)
You need a double boiler for this. Bring a few inches of water to boil in the bottom part of the boiler. In the top part, bring the 1 quart of water to a boil. Pour in the cornmeal and salt, whisking constantly. Continue to whisk for about 3-5 minutes, until it gets a bit like a slurry. Place it on the bottom part of the double boiler, cover, and cook for one hour, stirring every 20 minutes or so. Stir in butter and/or Parmesan, if using. (In this particular case, I actually stirred in 3 Tbsp. butter and no cheese. In the past, I’ve stirred in gorgonzola, which is also divine.)
If you want it to be soft, you are good to go. Otherwise, butter a 9×12 baking dish and pour the polenta in, smoothing it out with a spoon. Let cool until it becomes a solid mass (it will pull away from the sides.) Cut into squares, triangles, what have you, and then saute in butter, olive oil, whatever you like, until brown and crispy on both sides. (This recipe was enough for two servings with the veggies, and two more left over.)
The melange (this was enough for me for two servings)
1 bunch asparagus, tough ends broken off and sliced into 2” chunks
8 oz. Morels, soaked lightly and rinsed well (yes, they can harbor wee bugs,) then sliced vertically into thinnish strips
4 ramps, minced fine (reserve some of the green leaves for garnish, should you desire)
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
splash white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
Heat the butter and olive oil until melted together and starting to bubble. Add in the morels, a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper, and cook until they have shrunk up and are starting to soak up some of the butter and olive oil. Add in the ramps, cook for another minute. Add in the asparagus and cook until it is bright green. Personally, I like my asparagus to be a bit crunchy, particularly if I can get my hands on fresh stuff . Splash on some vinegar or lemon juice, something to brighten the whole thing. Salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy some well-deserved spring.