What a gift Elliot Coleman has given us by sharing the oh-so-simple but genius mini-hoop house.
Spring comes earlier to those gardens that have one or too rows covered with 3-foot-high, half-round hoops covered with two layers of plastic. But even if you aren’t a gardening overachiever harvesting your lettuce, spinach and pea shoots already, someone surely is, and they are probably selling their efforts at the farmers’ market, co-op or roadside stand.
Nature is also giving us with a spring that many have only dreamed of in Maine. I know, some of you are more worried than excited, but global warming aside (or whatever else is going on that we can’t control), it’s just so gorgeous! With that premature spring comes fiddleheads, which could be the emblematic vegetable of the state.
I didn’t spend my childhood in Maine, so fiddleheads were new to me when I came here. I like to say I grew up here, but lest you think I was raised in Maine, I was actually in my early 20s when I chose to call it my home.
In any event, the first 10 times I tried fiddleheads, I had to really discuss with myself whether I liked them or not. I knew I SHOULD like them, because what self-respecting chef wouldn’t like a wild-caught, only-once-a-year, specific-to-Maine delicacy?
Well, maybe me. In secret. It wasn’t until I tried to place my finger on it several years ago, when the talk of this “new” taste on our tongue began to develop — umami — that I realized this was it.
Bright, grassy, astringent, slightly bitter fiddleheads benefit from an umami flavor. Umami has a full, rich, low-noted and rounded taste. Bacon, Parmesan, tamari (soy sauce), toasted nuts or seeds, sun-dried tomatoes and olives are all examples of umami, and they all pair well with fiddleheads — softening and modulating some of the more powerful flavors. Of course an au gratin, cream sauce or pasta dish also work well, but this time of year, counting down days to the beach (and time in a bathing suit), most aren’t interested in a cream sauce. Understood.
Peas and pea shoots are also a landmark sign of summer marching its way toward us. The soup could be just as easily served cold with the same creme fraiche and chive as a garnish.
FIDDLEHEADS WITH TAMARI AND TOASTED SESAME SEEDS
1 teaspoon minced garlic, about 1 clove
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 cups fiddleheads, washed and ends trimmed
1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
To toast sesame seeds, heat them in a small skillet over medium heat. Stir or shake in the pan frequently. Remove from heat when the seeds become golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, and saute for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the fiddleheads and stir immediately. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes and add the tamari. Saute for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the fiddleheads are tender but still bright green. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve immediately.
Serves four to six.
LEMON PARMESAN FIDDLEHEADS
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 cups fiddleheads
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Melt the butter and add the garlic. Saute for 30 seconds to 1 minute and then add the fiddleheads, salt and pepper. Saute for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the fiddleheads are tender but still bright green. Add lemon juice, sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.
FRESH PEA SOUP WITH PESTO CROSTINI
Almost any bright-green veggie, including swiss chard, pea shoots, broccoli and spinach, would be lovely in this soup. It’s light, bright and packed with vitamins. You’ll want to choose veggies that cook quickly and when pureed will give up any stringiness that they hold. Celery, for example, would not work well, but If you have lovage (a celery-flavored herb that is more fragrant than celery itself) in your garden, it would be terrific.
It’s possible to use frozen veggies in this soup, but WHY when nature is just beginning to give us tender, green gifts sprouting up everywhere?
Another step to making this soup, which I would recommend on those chillier days when a little heat in the kitchen is welcome, would be to saute some onions and garlic in a little butter at the beginning. Combine the chicken stock and corn starch before adding it to the pot, and then follow the recipe below as indicated. The addition of onions will give this soup more body and a fuller flavor.
But on a warm, spring, almost-summer night, it’s perfect just the way it is.
If you make this soup ahead, it loses its bright-green brilliance. Try instead blanching the peas (or other vegetable) in the chicken-broth mixture and shocking them in cold water. Reserve the broth, of course. Add the pureed vegetable to the hot broth just before you are ready to serve.
1/4 cup corn starch
4 cups low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup minced chives, plus a little extra for garnish
4 cups shelled peas, or 20 ounces
1 teaspoon salt
Several grinds of freshly ground black pepper
8 oz. creme fraiche, a little set aside for garnish
Whisk the corn starch and the broth together in a medium stock pot or sauce pan. Once the corn starch is incorporated, turn the heat to medium-high and stir frequently until it comes to a boil. Boil for 1 minute and add the peas, chives, salt and pepper. Bring back to a boil, and cook the peas until they are just cooked through. Depending on the size of the peas, this will be a couple of minutes at the most.
Transfer the soup to a blender and puree until the peas are well blended, and then add the creme fraiche at the end. Serve immediately with a tiny dollop of creme fraiche and minced chives.
Serves four to six.
4 long diagonal slices of baguette or homemade crusty bread
1/4 cup pesto
Spread the pesto on all four slices of bread and broil for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the edges are crispy and the middle is hot.
Makes 4 crostini.
CORRECTION: The asparagus in Roasted Pesto Asparagus in my previous column should be roasted at 425 degrees.
Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea,” a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family’s windjammer. She can be reached at: