By Shelora Sheldan
Palate-pleasing culinary inspiration for the season with backyard herbs, foraged shoots and wild-grown nettles.
Around the globe, celebrating the change from winter to spring takes centre stage. Japan’s annual cherry blossom festival draws people outdoors for picnics while French cooks celebrate with navarin printanier, a ragout of spring lamb with first-of-the-season produce. Compatriots in still-snowy Quebec anticipate the first flow of syrup from maple trees while in Victoria we engage in our Flower Count and enjoy the first offerings of spring.
In my garden, I check for those bright green shoots that give me hope for the coming growing season — and any ready-to-use herbs to bring an infusion of celebratory brightness to the table. I also count down the days in March until Saanich’s Sun Wing Farms open their doors for those crunchy baby cucumbers and, at the now year-round Moss Street Market, new ingredients arrive each Saturday from Saanich Organics, Umi Nami Farm and other beloved farmers. Asparagus season is so close, I can taste it!
In mid-March, fervent foragers take to the woods for the first sign of bright green nettles and morel mushrooms. Nettle foraging has become increasingly popular. One year, I picked bright young shoots near Beacon Hill Park and enjoyed a meal of them blanched and sautéed with olive oil and lemon. Nettles are wonderful in everything from tea to ravioli fillings.
Bring Back the Green
With lettuces lacking in availability, flavour and variety at this time of year, I take to salads full of fresh herbs to enliven my palate. From foraged to farmed, they’re readily available. Parsley, both flat and curly, dill, cilantro and even tarragon along with tangy sorrel, arugula and watercress bring a one-two punch of nutritious vibrancy.
For added texture, I include toasted sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds or sliced almonds, and a delicate cheese such as ricotta or Island buffalo mozzarella. No fancy vinaigrettes — just a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice with salt and pepper to taste, and pow!
Chef, farmer and forager Oliver Kienast of Wild Mountain Supper Club (formerly of Sooke Harbour House) says, “Spring is the most exciting time to be a forager.” Nettles, morels, seaweed, fiddleheads and sweet cicely shoots are some of his favourites.
“And after all the root vegetables over the winter, we crave things high in Vitamin C,” he explains. “We crave the tang, the tart, the brightness — for me, rhubarb is when spring has sprung.”
He makes a dressing with rhubarb juice, sherry vinegar, angelica and honey with small pieces of rhubarb. He also uses poached rhubarb pieces alongside sautéed chicken livers, a combination I’m eager to try. In fact, I often “forage” rhubarb from my neighbour’s prolific patch and put it to good use in a crumble or muddle it with mint for a springtime mojito.
A Vitamin C craving finds me including segments of blood oranges, lemon or lime zest, or the juice or peel of preserved lemons in recipes. They add exciting brightness and acidity to sauces, vinaigrettes, risottos, pastas or salads.
Kienast craves combos synonymous with the season: crab and asparagus, lamb and morels, rhubarb and salmon. “The saying, ‘what grows together, goes together,’ is so true in the spring,” he says.
At Part and Parcel, Chef Grant Gard loves spring’s flowering brassicas and sprouting broccoli. “We’ll be doing a grilled cheese with housemade ricotta, sautéed brassica shoots and pickled green garlic, he says.” (Brassica is the name of that popular clan that includes broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.)
He also plans a braised lamb belly with sprouting broccoli and a good scattering of spring herbs such as mint, chives and arugula. Chopped fresh herbs are perfect added to pasta right before serving or just-wilted in butter to top a filet of halibut (mid-March is the beginning of halibut season!)
For a seasonal sidedish, purple and white varieties of sprouting broccoli just need a quick blanch in hot water or stock, plus a hit of butter or olive oil, or a drizzle of oyster or hoisin sauce. Twirly garlic scapes, another lauded springtime treat, are delicious thinly sliced and stir-fried with garlic, or pickled.
Simply put, it’s time to go out and visit a local farm, or maybe take a workshop in foraging. Relish spring’s beauty in all its colourful resplendence and celebrate with something fresh, and in season, at the table.