DULUTH -- I'm always looking for an excuse for a walk in the woods, and at this time of year, with spring ephemerals emerging in all their splendor, there is no shortage of reasons to wander. Wildflowers provide a feast for the eyes, and other spring plants offer up a feast for the dinner table.

This year, I decided to riff on a pasta primavera recipe by Melissa Clark that I found in the New York Times.

Primavera quite literally is inspired by the offerings of early springtime. It draws its name from the Latin "primus" (first) and "ver" (spring). So, I thought it only fitting to take Clark's recipe for pasta primavera with asparagus and peas and give it a Northland twist.

This dish, which I've dubbed Northland primavera, puts fiddleheads and ramps front and center.

This time of year, you can find fiddlehead ferns and ramps growing in abundance where the conditions are right, usually in a deciduous forest with rich, moist soil. But they should be harvested conservatively, lest you cause any permanent damage to a population of these plants. And you should make sure you are foraging on land where it is allowed.

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Ostrich fern growing in the woods.  Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
Ostrich fern growing in the woods. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

Fiddleheads are fairly easy to identify. Look for the unfurled shoots of the ostrich fern. The stems should be smooth and vibrant green, with a u-shaped groove running vertically up their length. Steer clear of an hairy or speckled-looking ferns. If you're unsure, take a pass and consult with someone in the know before proceeding.

Ramps, too, are easy to pick out. The plant has two smooth, elongated leaves that exude the smell of a slightly garlicky onion when crushed. Again, if you're uncertain, take a pass until you can positively ID the plant. People have been seriously sickened by mistakenly eating lily of the valley or worse yet, false hellebore.

A healthy stand of ramps.  Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
A healthy stand of ramps. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

Ramps are sometimes called wild leeks or forest leeks, but unlike a traditional leek, you can and should eat the whole of this delicious plant, save for the root. The most sustainable way to harvest ramps is to simply slice off a few leaves here and there from the stand. It's best not to dig up a ramp, killing the plant outright. But if you want to take some of the bulb, you may do so with a sharp knife, angling it shallowly into the ground to trim away only the top of the bulb and leaving the rest of it in the ground with the roots intact. Avoid overharvesting. Instead, move from place to place and take plants from the middle of healthy stands, rather than the edges when possible. Where conditions are right ramps can be quite prolific.

Closeup of ramp being harvested with a puukko knife. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
Closeup of ramp being harvested with a puukko knife. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

So, now you're back home with fiddleheads and ramps in hand. What now?

Fiddleheads need a bit of attention. I usually soak and agitate them in the sink, allowing any bits of papery husk or forest duff to float away. The following step is important, because there have been cases of fiddlehead food poisoning: To prevent making anyone sick, bring the ferns to a boil for a few minutes. I like to take them out well before they go soft, draining them and then plunging them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain again, and then dry them off.

Blanched fiddleheads placed in ice water to stop the cooking.  Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
Blanched fiddleheads placed in ice water to stop the cooking. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

The ramps, too, should be washed and dried. Separate the leaves from the thicker stem and bulb top, as they cook differently.

Now for the recipe. (I didn't suggest quantities, because most of the ingredients can be adjusted to taste or based on what you have available.)

Fiddleheads, tarragon and ramps with greens separated for cooking.  Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
Fiddleheads, tarragon and ramps with greens separated for cooking. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

Ingredients

  • Fiddleheads
  • Ramps
  • Butter
  • Garlic
  • Pasta
  • Creme fraiche
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh tarragon
  • Parsley
  • Salt
  • Black and red pepper

Washed ramps.  Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
Washed ramps. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

Directions

Boil up the pasta of your choice. I used an egg tagliatelle. Don't overdo it, you want the noodles to be slightly al dente at this point. Drain the pasta reserving at least some of the water.

Meanwhile, melt a few tablespoons of butter in a large skillet, add garlic and the ramp stems and fry until they just begin to caramelize. Then, add the fiddleheads and cook a bit longer until they soften a bit but not to the point of being mushy. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Sauteed fiddleheads and ramps.  Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com
Sauteed fiddleheads and ramps. Peter Passi / ppassi@duluthnews.com

Toss in the ramp greens, the pasta, and some of the reserved pasta water. A splash of white wine doesn't hurt either. As the ramp greens wilt, the sauce thickens and the consistency of the pasta reaches your liking, fold in the creme fraiche, the parmesan cheese, the tarragon and parsley. Season with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes to your liking.

Serve immediately, and enjoy the taste of our long-awaited Northland spring.

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