Home Plate: Dandelions, ramps and asparagus – oh my!
The longer I garden, the more I appreciate perennial vegetables. Plant them once, take care of them by weeding, watering and feeding the soil around them with good compost, and they’ll return reliably year after year. Many of these perennials are among the first edibles of spring, which seems to make them taste even more delicious to winter-weary taste buds.
Some perennial spring vegetables don’t even require planting. Dandelion greens, chicory, sorrel and, later in spring, lambs quarters and nettles, are all wild plants that are abundant self-seeders (aka, weeds). All of them are best picked young and tender, before they’ve flowered (with nettles, be sure to wear gloves, to avoid the stinging hairs that are destroyed in cooking).
Many of these “weeds” are so delicious that vegetable breeders have come up with more refined versions sold through seed catalogues. Two of my favorites are super-cold hardy Italian Red Dandelion (it’s actually chicory) and Good King Henry, a member of the weedy Goose Foot family that tastes like spinach and can be harvested from early spring into fall.
Asparagus, unlike perennial weeds, takes a bit of work. It likes lots of good compost and requires watering all summer, or it won’t be productive year after year. Also, you have to keep grass from growing in amongst the shoots and battle the dreaded asparagus beetle, which can wreak havoc.
One method of achieving both weed and bug suppression is to interplant asparagus with parsley and dill, which can out-compete grass and which asparagus beetles hate. The herbs are also a good use of space, providing a season-long crop even after the 4th of July, when good gardeners let their asparagus grow into full, tall ferns to gather energy for next season.
It’s not too late to put in an asparagus bed this year, though you won’t be able to harvest any juicy spears until a few seasons have passed and the bed has filled in. Though asparagus can be grown from seed, the most productive plants are male clones (they don’t go to seed) bought as 2 or 3 year-old roots. Two widely available good choices are “Jersey Supreme” and “Purple Passion.”
Ramps, if you’ve never encountered them, are a wild native woodland allium, related to both onions and garlic and tasting a bit like both. They’re happy at high, cool elevations, in the kind of moist mixed woodlands where trilliums and golden seal grow beneath maples and beeches, and can completely carpet the early spring forest floor. It seemed likely that ramps would grow around here, but though I scoured our woodlot every spring, I could never find wild ramps growing there.
Finally, a few years ago, I took matters into my own hands and ordered a shipment of mature ramps from Ramp Farm Specialties in West Virginia (rampfarm.com). Owner Glen Facemire only ships his bulbs in February and March (seeds are available all the time), so when he heard that New Hampshire had a big snow storm brewing just as he was putting my ramps in the mail, he gave me a call to talk me through how to care for his “babies” until I could put them in the ground (it turned out that a couple of window boxes in a cold frame did the trick).
The ramps arrived huge and healthy, and now, a few seasons later, are beginning to spread both where I’ve planted them in the woods, and in the more cultivated sections of my garden. They’re particularly happy growing under the shade of the grape arbor. Though you can buy 3 dozen ramps for $24.75, the most economical way to order them is 1,000 bulbs for $194 (shipping is free). I’d suggest splitting an order with friends and scouting likely locations this summer (you’ll want to try several spots to be on the safe side). Do order early, so you don’t miss out, and be prepared with window boxes and a cold frame, just in case.
Early spring vegetables fresh from the garden don’t need much in the way of preparation. All of them are delicious cooked fast and hot with olive oil or chopped bacon. Ramps and asparagus can be lightly tossed in oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, placed in a grill basket and cooked briefly on the grill. They’re also perfect stir fried along with fresh spring chives, a bit of ginger and a little soy sauce combined with water or orange juice.
Below you’ll find a recipe that combines dandelion greens, ramps, and asparagus cooked with bacon as the topping for pizza. Though the pizza dough needs a full day to rise (or overnight in the refrigerator), once it’s ready, the recipe goes together in a snap. Feel free to substitute store-bought dough if you’re short on time. Also, feel free to leave out the bacon if you’re a vegetarian, and to substitute whatever fresh spring vegetables you have on hand. Spinach or escarole would be delicious.
And if you’re only feeding two people, divide the topping recipe in half. Store the extra pizza dough in the refrigerator in an oiled plastic bag and use it later in the week. It will be good for several days.
Ramp, Dandelion and
For the dough:
scant 4 cups flour (can be up to 1∕3 whole wheat)
1∕4 teaspoon dry yeast
1 teaspoon fine sea salt (can be up to 2 teaspoons, if desired)
11∕2 to 13∕4 cups water (if your water is chlorinated, use spring or filtered water)
For the topping:
4 slices thick bacon, cut into 1∕2-inch chunks
1 large bunch dandelion greens (about 1∕2 pound), trimmed of roots, well washed in cold water and chopped
1 large bunch ramps (about 10), trimmed of roots, washed well and chopped; or use 6 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large bunch asparagus (about 1 pound or more), trimmed, washed and chopped
11∕2 pounds fresh mozzarella, broken up into chunks
hot red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper, to taste
olive oil for drizzling
For the dough, combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the water (you will need the larger amount if using whole wheat flour) and stir with a spoon until well combined – do not knead. If the mixture seems too dry (it should be quite sticky), add a little more water to incorporate all the flour.
Cover with plastic and set on a cool counter to rise. If it is very warm or you’d like to use the dough more than 18 hours later, place in the refrigerator. Allow the dough to rise until doubled – if it’s warm this will happen in about 12 hours, if it’s very cool, in about 18 hours.
When ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 450 to 500 degrees (my oven doesn’t go to 500 – use the higher heat if you can). If you have a pizza stone, place it on the top rack.
Divide the dough into 4 balls. Lightly oil them with olive oil, cover them with plastic and set aside on the counter to rise and soften while you make the topping.
Heat a large skillet and add the bacon, if using, (otherwise, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and continue with the greens instructions below). Cook the bacon until it is beginning to brown. Remove the bacon from the pan, pour off most of the fat, and return the skillet to the heat. Add the dandelion greens, ramps or garlic, asparagus and bacon pieces, if using. Cook, stirring, until the greens are wilted and tender. Season to taste with hot red pepper, black pepper and salt (you may not need any salt, depending on the bacon). Remove the greens from the pan and set aside.
Turn the oven to broil to super-heat the pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza stone, place a large aluminum sheet tray in the oven to heat (do not use a tray that has a non-stick coating as it will burn).
Stretch the dough either by rolling with a rolling pin or by hand to a very thin, 12-inch circle. Place the round on a well floured pizza peel or onto the back of a well floured aluminum sheet tray. Cover dough to within about 1 inch of the edge with 1∕4 of the greens and then 1∕4 of the mozzarella. Drizzle the pizza with a little olive oil.
Open the oven door and slide the pizza from the peel onto the pizza stone. If you are not using a pizza stone, carefully remove the hot sheet tray from the oven, sprinkle it with a little flour, then slide the pizza from the overturned sheet tray onto the hot sheet tray and return it to the oven.
The pizza will cook very quickly – 2 to 4 minutes. If the pizza begins to burn (a few black spots are desirable, but not an over-all char), turn the broiler off, but leave the oven temperature at 450 to 500 degrees.
You may need to slide a spatula under the pizza and turn it, or turn the sheet tray, so that it cooks evenly. It is done when the edges are well browned, and black in spots. Remove from the oven, slide onto a cutting board, and cut up and serve immediately.
Repeat with the other three pieces of dough. Serves 4 generously.