Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Adventures in Seasonal Cooking aka Using Weird hard to find ingredients that you can probably find in the woods but I pay three bucks for.

Vol. 1: Ramps

Also called wild leeks, these are very pretty, with long fanned out lily-like leaves, which are edible along with the bulbs. Evidently they grow all up and down the eastern seaboard, and folks in the Appalachians celebrate their arrival as the first of spring. They're season is short like asparagus, maybe three weeks, and about a week or two earlier, starting in early April here in New York and lasting until early-mid May. They taste a little like a cross between garlic and onion, though mellower than both. They go great with eggs and poultry, but here are two recipes, one with rainbow Trout and one that riffs on Potato-leek soup that you can serve alternately cold or warm, depending on the weather.

Trout with Ramps two ways--baconated and unbaconated

Unbaconated--super easy, here's what you need:

One rainbow trout about a pound or so, gutted.
Maybe half a dozen ramps, leaves separated from bulbs, bulbs chopped fine
A tomato sliced thin and the slices sliced again in half
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil

Oven should be high, maybe 425-450.
Stuff the trout cavity with the chopped bulbs and the tomato slices, putting any extra tomatoes on top of the body. Salt and pepper inside and out (to get at the inside flesh I sprinkle some s and p into my palm and kind of sprinkle in, otherwise it's kinda hard do direct the shaker). Move the whole operation to a cookie sheet. Then you want to grab your ramp leaves and wrap them around the body to help keep the cavity closed and impart flavor. Don't worry about the tail or head--it's pretty funny when you're all done; the fish looks like it's wearing a green blanket, or a fancy full trenchcoat. I like to make it talk in funny accents and say silly things at this point. Once I'm done I drizzle oil over the leaves and head and smear it kind of under the body, too, so it doesn't stick.

After that just whack it in the oven, as Jamie Oliver would say, for 12-15 minutes, or until the eye is completely opaque and the flesh is not pink anymore. Once it's done take it out, unwrap it from the leaves (you can use those later in the presentation on the platter), and get to carving. That means first separating the head and tail, which is a breeze, then cutting along the back of the fish laterally, just above the backbone/spine. Once cut take a spatula and lift the top filet off--don't worry if some bones comes with it, you can pick those out later, but if the flesh isn't coming off the bone then it's not cooked enough. Once you've exposed the backbone just pull it up off the bottom filet, spatula the filet over to a platter, and serve the whole mess with some roasted potatoes or whatever you feel like.

Baconated Trout with Ramps

This was kind of a disaster, but I think I could have avoided it. Here's what you'll need--
Trout same size as above
Maybe three slices of bacon, either thick or thin, about 6 oz. (you may need another slice or half slice, depending on the size of your fish)
Three sprigs thyme
Two or three ramps, this time both the leaves and bulbs chopped fine
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Wooden skewers or toothpicks

You want this time to stuff the cavity with the thyme sprigs and ramps, then season it. But this time our gentleman or gentlelady or whatever will be wearing what I like to call a meatvest. And this is where I went horribly wrong in my operation. I thought I'd be fancy and do like the pros and not fasten the bacon to the skin of the fish, assuming I could sear the bacon fat to it in such a way that it would act like a glue. Wrong, wrong, wrong--after I wrapped the bacon around the fish and tried searing it in a hellishly hot cast iron skillet, I went to turn the whole mess, which resulted in a flopping noodle like mass of baconflesh, exposed fish flesh where the skin had torn away, and a bubbling molten bog of bacon grease too hot to swim in.

So let's not do that. Best thing to do is wrap the body with the bacon in such a way that the seams of each slice line up, and then affix the slices along that seam to the body with a skewer. Or you could use toothpicks and just affix each slice one at a time, whatever works for you. But make sure they're stuck on the trout one way or another, otherwise you'll have sloppytime express.

Alright, now once the fish is all set up get a cast iron skillet blazing on a stovetop, hot enough that a little bit of olive oil drizzled in starts to smoke immediately. Then add the fish and sear the two sides so that the bacon gets good and brown and crispy, about two three minutes a side. Meanwhile get the oven up to temp.--again, 425 or so--and once you're done browning and the trout is swimming in some good liquiporkofat (you may want to drain some off), pop the whole mess in the oven for about ten minutes or to desired doneness. After take the fish out I like to sautee spinach in the leftover grease, but whatever floats your boat.

From there you just take out the skewer/toothpicks, peel off the bacon strips, and filet as above. The flesh should be juicy and rich.

Veggie-friendly Potato-Wild Leek soup
What you need:
2 T. Butter
Another half dozen ramps, bulbs and leaves chopped fine
Maybe a lb. of potatoes (I used four good sized red-skinned, white fleshed potatoes--I think they were called "Norland" or something. I dunno, one of seventy five thousand potato varieties available at the market. You could use about any non-russet, and thus non-baker/starchy potato here, even fingerlings if you want), diced and unskinned
1/4-1/3 c. Heavy Cream or half and half if you're a health nut (don't event ask if you can use lowfat or skim milk--I MIGHT give a little and say you can substitute whole milk here, but dono't push me.)

Bring a pan of heavily salted water (i.e. the water tastes salty, almost like the ocean--sea salt (duh) works well to this end) to boil and boil the taters until soft, maybe 20 min. Remove the taters and save the water.
Melt the butter over medium heat and sautee the ramp bulbs only until light brown, maybe 8-10 min. You may have to turn the heat down--keep an eye out so they don't brown too quickly and burn. That sucks--they taste like crap when they burn.
Add the potatoes and stir for a minute, then add the water in which you cooked the potatoes (purists of potato-leek soup HATE this step) and the ramp leaves.
Swirl the whole concoction around and bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, for 10 min. tops, until the flavors mix or you get impatient. Check for seasoning, add pepper if you want to or more salt if you need it, then whiz it up in batched in a food processor or blender. Once it's smooth add the cream--the soup should be a pale green color, the color of spring, because of the pureed ramp leaves. Don't add so much cream that you kill the color (and the taste), and you're done. Add croutons if you want or serve with crusty bread.

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