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Thursday, May 7, 2009

In Season: Ramps

In this part of the country when the snow recedes, foodies and foragers anxiously exchange messages on the food boards about when ramps will be ready for the season. When? When? When? they ask growing more and more impatient as Spring creeps forward. Of course, once ramps (also known as wild leeks or green garlic) are ready to be picked, these foodies and foragers go delirious descending upon their secret outdoor locations and farmer's markets to get their fix.

I am a bandwagon jumper when it comes to these things. People have loved them for many years yet I only discovered these little gems last year after reading an article about them. When I realized that they were making their rounds in professional and home kitchens everywhere, I had to find out what the fuss was about.

Ramps are part of the onion family, its stem is long and slender (slightly leaner than a scallion) imbued with a plum-pinkish hue and long broad verdant leaves. To the uninitiated, the pungent smell of ramps may be off-putting, but for those who love garlic, the smell is irresistible. When we brought them home from the market, we kept them in a separate bag lest they transfer their fragrance to an unsuspecting block of cheddar or an cherry strudel from the pie lady. (Also consider the same when storing them in your fridge.) But oh the taste, its slightly onion, slightly garlic, and just a little bit earthy. If you ever see it in the market, I encourage you to try them, just at least once.

They grow widely and freely in wooded areas from the mid-eastern United States all the way up to southern part of Canada. For those who are unable to forage for them (or grow them), they can be purchased at the farmer's market for a prince's ransom. (Last year, my CSA sold them for $18/lb and this year, I bought two small bunches weighting 50 grams for $4.) A small price to pay for this fleeting treasure.

This year, we tried ramps in two different ways. We pickled the stems using Tom Colicchio's pickled ramp recipe and with the leaves we made a delicious spring vegetable frittata.

Spring Vegetable Frittata

10 small morels (or 5 large ones) - sliced in into thin strips
2 plum tomatoes - diced
1 c ramp leaves - loosely packed - julienned
1 c baby spinach - loosely packed - julienned
4 stalks asparagus - cleaned and cut into 1 inch pieces
6 eggs

salt & pepper
olive oil

1 c shredded part-skim mozzarella (more or less to taste)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Light oil 1.4l baking dish.
2. Arrange tomatoes, morels, asparagus, ramps & spinach in the baking dish.
3. Crack the eggs into a bowl, add salt & pepper and beat until incorporated. Carefully pour into baking dish.
4. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Check around the 18 minute mark to make sure the eggs are not cooking too quickly. Do not overcook. (The eggs will have body but will still look wet and glossy.)
5. Remove from the oven and turn on your broiler. Sprinkle mozzarella over top of frittata and return to oven until the cheese melts, and starts to bubble & turn golden.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Grilled Potatoes with Bajan Inspired Dipping Sauce

Last week we spent five blissful days in beautiful Barbados. It was a quick trip but a great way to see old friends, meet new ones and enjoy a little time under the Caribbean sun.

Our snorkeling trip was a rare treat for me. We spent a wonderful morning snorkeling with majestic Hawksbill sea turtles. These marvellous creatures sailed past us so closely that they just grazed our fingertips. With all of the regular boat tours and foreign interlopers flailing about in the water, I suspect the sea turtles have come to recognize the sound of the boats engines as a Pavlovian conditioned response: Boat engines = food.

But we spent the balance of our time in Barbados primarily out of the water. We explored the island, ate the local cuisine and enjoyed the night life. On one such night, our friends boasted a Rihanna sighting at one of the local bars across from our hotel. (All the things you miss when you don't stay out until 3am!)

Nevertheless, I still love the adventure of travelling. My favourite aspect of being away from home is enjoying an experience that I have never had before, meeting new and interesting people and of course, discovering the local cuisine. Like most Caribbean cuisines, Bajan food is known for spicy flavours (though not necessarily the most fiery), and the freshest fish (including my new favourite, flying fish) cooked on the hottest grills.

Most people who spend time in Barbados make their way to Oistins for the Fish Fry. The weekly event takes place on Friday and Saturday nights and draws in both tourists and locals on a steamy night for a little music, some handicrafts and alot of delicious food.

As much as I was looking forward to our friend's wedding, I was also quite eager to experience the famous Oistins Fish Fry. When Friday night arrived, we packed ourselves in a taxi with a camera in hand and a healthy appetite. We followed the crowds down to Oistins. The parking lot heaved with taxis and buses lining up to unload hungry folk intent on experiencing the famous Oistins Fish Fry.

One side of the market is what I would call the fresh side. This is where fish comes off the boats caught that day to be brought up to stations where masters with expert hands deftly scale and gut fresh fish for sale. By the evening, there is little for sale as stand owners prepare for the next day's business.

As we moved over towards the crowds, we found the Fish Net Stand, the recommended dinner spot from the locals we polled. It turned out we weren't the only ones who knew about this gem. We lined up for ten minutes to order dinner. The line moved quickly and the staff hustled to move the line along. By far, the most popular choice was Dolphin-fish. (Don't worry - we didn't eat Flipper, it's another name for Mahi Mahi.) The dinner comes with a generous serving of the fish of our choice (Marlin, Dolphin, Tuna, and Swordfish), a small green salad, two potato halves grilled to perfection. But best of all, was the slightly spicy tartar sauce. This tartar sauce was creamy and smooth, studded with little bits of sweet relish and finished with a smooth touch of heat. We thought this tartar sauce was excellent with the fish, but it was even better with the grilled potatoes.

I think the base of this sauce was a combination of mayonnaise and sour cream but I decided to lighten it a little bit with a little low fat sour cream and skipped the mayonnaise.

These grilled potatoes would be a great addition to your next BBQ dinner. Also, this is simple enough to a great side to a weekday dinner.

Grilled Potatoes with Bajan Inspired Sauce

Quantity of potatoes
Olive oil

Dipping Sauce
1 c sour cream (low-fat is okay)
1/2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp dill
1/4 tsp dry mustard
6 sweet gherkins (minced finely - use a food processor) or 2 tbsp sweet relish
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp lime juice

Boil the desired quantity of potatoes until mostly cooked. Cool slightly and slice lengthwise. Brush lightly with olive oil and grill on the BBQ or a grill pan.

To make the dipping sauce, mix ingredients together and adjust seasoning to taste. Set aside. If possible, make the dip in advance to allow the flavours to meld.

Serve sauce alongside grilled potatoes. (This is fantastic with raw vegetables as well.)

While in Barbados, I recommend:

Cuzz's Fish Stand (the most fantastic flying fish sandwich I had on the island)Located beside the Dive Shop Ltd in St Michael by near the Hilton

Fish Net Stand for the grilled "Dolphin-fish" dinner at Oistins Fish Fry
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