After the success of the Cooklyn Improv event, Jonathan from Lab 24/7 and I decided to team up and do a spring Forage Feast event. The concept was to get a group of fellow food fanatics together for a foraging trip up in Yonkers where we'd pick ramps, fiddleheads and stinging nettles then bring them back to The Lab to prepare a 5 course feast.
The spring bounty at this park is both beautiful and tasty with over a dozen edible plants in a narrow stretch of public park that runs along the Bronx River. Liz from Zested and I had a hard time choosing whether we wanted to forage or photograph, but we all had a good time.
It's still early in the season, but the hillsides are already blanketed with pale green ramps. In case you're not familiar with these springtime treats, they're a member of the onion family and have broad tender tulip-like leaves and a small bulb at the bottom that gets bigger as the season progresses. They taste like a cross between garlic and leeks, making them the perfect onion to add to almost any savoury dish.
Because of their brief season and short shelf life, ramps tend to be very expensive in markets, but if you live in the North Eastern US, they grow like weeds in many parks. We ended up using them in a few courses, but I think my favourite preparation is grilled with a little sea salt and olive oil as seen above.
Stinging nettles have a wonderful green flavour that's similar to wheat grass or mugwort, and is great for making teas, soups, purees or even pasta. As the name implies, they have tiny hollow needles that are filled with a toxic combo of formic acid, histamine and other nasty irritants that will burn initially and have you itching for hours. To avoid their angry wrath, gloves are a must when handling them and once you get them home, they need to be blanched or steamed before they can be eaten.
After Giff from Constables Larder patiently cleaned a whole bag of nettles, we turned some of them into tempura, others where blanched and integrated into pasta dough, and the rest were pureed into a custard we had originally planned to make ice cream out of. Unfortunately, the ice cream maker was a no-show, so we had to improvise. Keep reading to see all the dishes we made, including the fate of the nettle custard.
The last thing we picked were fiddleheads, which are the curled sprouts of the ostrich fern. There are only a few species of fern that are edible and the leaves become inedible once they unfurl, so fiddleheads are a rare treat that can only be enjoyed a few weeks out of the year. It was still very early in the season and we thought we might be out of luck, but upon closer inspection, these gorgeous green shoots were literally popping up underfoot.
Bags full of prickly nettles, pungent ramps, and bitter garlic mustard, we filled up 3 cars and headed back to Lab 24/7 to cook up our feast.
To get the cooking off on the right foot, we all indulged in a potent pickled ramp martini. The pickles, which Stephane from Zen Can Cook made a few days earlier, were a huge hit and had to be hidden before they all disappeared.
Here, there are three of us trying to figure out how to work the deep fryer, a bowl of nettle crème anglaise being strained and Claire from Colloquial Cooking, expertly whipping a bowl of juniper infused meringue.
Our first course was an amuse bouche of Parmigiano-Reggiano melting moments with crème fraiche and grilled ramps with a spritz of lemon juice. The Parmesan shortbread cookies melt into a pool of toasty cheese in your mouth along with the sweet grilled ramps, while the cool crème fraiche and lemon gave it a refreshing zing.
Next up, we had ramp tempura, fiddlehead tempura and stinging nettle tempura that were served with yuzu salt and red shiso salt. Because tempura needs to be eaten straight out of the fryer, we just set out a plate on the counter with two bowls of salt for people to snack on as they cooked.
The seafood course was a delightful spring fricassée with seared scallops on a bed of sunchoke milk puree. The fricassée had fiddleheads, fava beans, and peas and the puree underneath was a rich sweet concoction that was simply a combo of sunchokes and milk that were cooked together until the sunchokes were soft which was then blitzed in a food processor for several minutes.
For the pasta course, we made a stinging nettle carbonara with fiddheads and guanciale. The nettles were blanched and integrated into the pasta dough and the cooked pasta was tossed with cheese, eggs, fiddleheads and crisped Guanciale.
The spice cured pork belly with pickled ramps and caramel was truly the pièce de résistance of the meal. It started 3 days earlier with pork belly being cured in a spice rub at my place. The pickles on top were started around the same time at Stephane's place, and through a series of covert hand-offs, they made their way to The Lab. The cured pork belly was washed, then braised with a bunch of herbs and veggies until it was on the verge of disintegrating. These tender cubes of melty pork were plated with sauteed ramps and morel mushrooms and topped with pickled ramps. Then to finish it off, a sweet, tangy caramel made from the pickling liquid and braising stock that was drizzled around the plate. A perfect balance of colors, textures, sweet, sour, salt and umami.
Finally, in keeping with the theme, we had planned to do a stinging nettle ice cream in juniper infused meringue cups. Unfortunately the ice cream maker never arrived, so we had a thin nettle custard we needed to do something with. Food hacker Marc Powell suggested we make a make-shift ice cream maker out of ziploc bags, ice, and salt, so as we ate the pork belly, we passed a double bag of ice and custard around the table and watched in wonder as this grade school science experiment made a bag of ice cream right before our eyes. We didn't have time to freeze the nettle custard, so we served the first batch of ice cream in caramelized juniper meringue cups filled with stinging nettle crème anglaise.
Our first Forage Feast was a great success and I'm looking forward to doing it again next year. Thanks to Jonathan for hosting us at The Lab and everyone else for participating!