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Home Plate: Sauteing the first foods of spring

  •  It’s time to grab the first greens of spring, such as the lovage, chives and green garlic called for in these Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs , or the  Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens  pictured below.

    It’s time to grab the first greens of spring, such as the lovage, chives and green garlic called for in these Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs , or the Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens pictured below.

  •  It’s time to grab the first greens of spring, such as the lovage, chives and green garlic called for in these Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs , or the  Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens  pictured below.

    It’s time to grab the first greens of spring, such as the lovage, chives and green garlic called for in these Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs , or the Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens pictured below.

  •  It’s time to grab the first greens of spring, such as the lovage, chives and green garlic called for in these Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs , or the  Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens  pictured below.
  •  It’s time to grab the first greens of spring, such as the lovage, chives and green garlic called for in these Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs , or the  Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens  pictured below.

May is the season when all that planning ahead gardeners have done in seasons past pays off. Our tulips and daffodils, flowering quince, cherries, peaches, apples, pears, crab apples and lilacs are in glorious, fragrant bloom.

In the edible garden, the ramps (a kind of wild garlic) we planted a few years ago in shady moist spots have spread enough to harvest and are at their peak right now. We eat the whole thing, wide white root and tender green leaves, as an alternative in any recipe that calls for cloves of garlic. If we didn’t have ramps, we could raid the garlic patch we planted last October for some green garlic, instead, again using both the incipient bulb and the tender greens.

The garlics aren’t the only alliums available right now. Chives, garlic chives, walking onions and scallions are sprouting up everywhere, so abundant we have to eat them at almost every meal to keep them from taking over the whole yard.

Other cool season herbs have also arrived – parsley and chervil in the unheated greenhouse, tarragon and lovage, unprotected, thrive in the garden. If you haven’t grown lovage before, it’s a great addition to your garden. One of the first greens to peek out in spring, the young leaves have a strong celery-like flavor. The plant grows to an imposing size, so give it space. In fall, harvest the seed heads to use as celery seed.

In the shade on the north side of the house, the logs we inoculated with shitaakes and oyster mushrooms last year are producing their first cool-season flush. It was a lot of work to get them started, but the logs should produce for several years and these mushrooms are much more delicious than store-bought. Also, mushrooms are now understood to be great aids to the human immune system as well as the only “plant” (they are actually fungi) that contains vitamin D.

In my annual beds, the mustard greens I tucked beneath protective fabric to keep the flea beetles away are big enough to harvest, but still tender and not too spicy. They’ll get hotter and tougher as spring passes to summer, so now is the time to eat them in quick stir fries.

In fact, all the foods in the garden right now (did I mention asparagus?) are still tender and mild and should be only lightly cooked, or, like the baby lettuces, eaten raw. Below you’ll find two recipes that showcase the first foods of spring in recipes that cook quickly to preserve their delicate flavors.

The first is a vegetarian version of the spicy classic Mapo Tofu, where mushrooms step in to replace ground pork. Feel free to replace the shitaakes with other mushrooms and the ramps for cloves of garlic or green garlic.

The second is a delicious way to serve the steamers that have been turning up on sale at local markets. If you don’t have the exact herbs I call for, substitute whatever you have on hand. Just remember that lovage is a powerful herb - use a light touch when adding it. As for the white wine, you could just use water instead. But if you do use it, serve the remaining wine with the steamers; it’s a heavenly match.

Shitaake and Ramp Mapo Tofu with Gingery Mustard Greens

one 14-ounce block firm tofu

3 tablespoons oil, such as sunflower

½ teaspoon well crushed Sichuan peppercorns

5 ramps, cleaned and chopped both green and white parts, or 5 cloves garlic peeled and minced

2 tablespoons freshly minced or grated ginger

1 bunch scallions, trimmed of roots and chopped, both green and white parts

5 ounces fresh shitaake mushrooms, stemmed and finely chopped (save stems for stock – they are too tough to eat)

2 tablespoons chili bean sauce (see note) or 1 tablespoon black bean paste combined with 1 tablespoon Srirarcha sauce (more for serving)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

½ cup water (may need a little more)

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

12 ounces small, fresh mustard greens, washed and sliced into wide ribbons

salt and pepper to taste

rice for serving

Cut the tofu in half through the center of the block and lay the halves, cut side down, on paper towels or a clean dish cloth to drain while you are preparing the other ingredients. When all the other ingredients are assembled, cut the tofu into 3/4 inch cubes.

Heat a wok over medium high heat. Add the oil and when it is shimmering, add the Sichuan pepper corns and cook for 30 seconds or so, then add the ramps or garlic, 1 tablespoon of the ginger and half of the chopped scallions. Cook for a minute.

Add the mushrooms and continue cooking for several minutes. Stir in the chili bean paste, the soy sauce and the water and let that bubble for a minute. If all the liquid cooks away too quickly, add a little more water. Finally, add the tofu. Cook for a few minutes, until the tofu is thoroughly heated; season with salt and black pepper, if desired, along with the sesame oil.

Scoop all of the tofu into a serving dish, but leave a little liquid in the bottom of the wok. Return wok to the heat, and add the remaining tablespoon of ginger to it and cook for a moment, then add the mustard greens. Cook for a few minutes, until they are wilted and tender. Season with salt and pepper if desired, then scoop onto a serving dish.

Sprinkle the tofu with the remaining scallions. Serve tofu with rice and mustard greens and additional Srirarcha sauce, if desired. Serves 4.

Note: Chili bean sauce can be found in the Asian section of most grocery stores. It is made of fermented fava and soy beans and chilies and is important in Sichuan cuisine. If you ever find any imported from Guilin, grab it; it will be particularly delicious!

Steamers with White Wine and Spring Herbs

1 pound steamer clams

6 tablespoons butter

1 bunch fresh chives, chopped

1 sprig fresh lovage or several sprigs of celery leaves, chopped

4 or 5 ramps or heads of green garlic, trimmed of roots and sliced thinly, both bulb and tender green parts

several sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped

a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup of un-oaked aromatic dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or Grüner Veltliner

If the clams are muddy, scrub their shells under running water with an old toothbrush, then put them in a bowl of cold salted water for at least an hour to cleanse away some of their grit.

Melt the butter in the bottom of a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When it is bubbling, pour half of the butter into a small cup and set aside in a warm place. Return the remaining butter to the heat and add the chives, lovage, ramps and parsley and cook for a minute. Add the red and black peppers, then the wine. Lift the clams from their soaking water (to leave the grit behind) and add to the pot. Adjust the heat if necessary – the wine should not be boiling so furiously it threatens to evaporate completely. Cover the pot with a lid.

Cook the clams just until they all open. Lift them out of the liquid and place in a bowl. Carefully pour the broth left in the bottom of the pot into a big measuring cup or something with a spout. Don’t pour all of it in, but try to leave behind any grit in the bottom of the pot to discard. Pour the liquid into 2 small cups.

Serve the steamers immediately, with the cups of broth and butter for dipping. Serves 2.

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