The months with “r” in them have gone, taking with them crisp, briny oysters. But foods with “r” in them are here or on the way. What are these gorgeous victuals? Rhubarb! Strawberries! Morels! Sea robin! Ramps!
So far this year rhubarb has emerged fitfully, but June is its top month. Strawberries, we’ve heard about—right now they’re splendid. Morels? They’re as flighty and hard to find as black truffles. But ramps? They’ve popped up in the woods all around where I live, their cheerful white-star flowers blanketing parts of the forest floor, their garlic aroma perfuming the air. In France they’re called l’ail des ours—bear garlic. This year, a student came to my cooking class proudly holding a small bouquet of ramps in his hands. “Teacher, teacher,” he said, mimicking a child. “Look what I brought! Ramps!” He was so excited, so thrilled. “Do you realize how rare these are?” he asked.
It’s true that in the Appalachian region of the US ramp season is greeted like the second coming, with festivals and cookouts, as avid hunters come in with their garlic-scented catch. I had never had a ramp, but I looked at the plants in his hand and took him to the old pear tree in my garden. At its base was a whole bed of the very same plant. His eyes almost popped out of his head. “You have ramps in your GARDEN?” I’d
brought a plant in from the woods some years before and yes, indeed, thanks to that student I now know I have a small and valued growth of ramps right outside my front door.
Not just tart
But more of ramps later; first, back to rhubarb. This frivolous plant, with its undulating, toxic leaves and heavenly red stalks, gives, gives and gives. This year it began giving in April, then stopped when the temperatures fell, then started right back up again. Right now, the French nation is immersing itself in compotes and cakes, tarts and verrines, creams and crunchy salads that make your eyes water with raw rhubarb tartness.
Rhubarb originated in Asia, where it has been used as a medicinal plant for the past 5,000 years or so. It took the English to put it on the plate, first as a dessert and then as a vegetable, its official classification. Rhubarb occasionally shows up in France as a salty side dish with lamb or seafood, although, as in most cultures, the French tend to thoroughly sweeten it.
Normandy, along with most regions northwest of the Loire Valley, is rhubarb central, its maritime climate ideal for the development of
strong, juicy stalks and leaves large enough to use as parasols. The leaves contain an overabundance of oxalic acid, which accounts for their
toxicity. They’re so toxic, in fact, that they are a frequent ingredient in pesticides. The stalks, which range from pale green to deep red, contain a whole cocktail of vitamins and minerals. You wouldn’t think so, because they seem to be mostly made of water, but if you’re looking for potassium or phosphorous, vitamin C or calcium, rhubarb is your fruit (or vegetable). When you pull a stalk from the plant it comes forth with a thin sheaf of the root that’s coated with a mucus-like substance. Traditionally, this was rubbed on infections, as it is considered an antiseptic.
Aside from its nutritional and medicinal qualities, rhubarb offers an inimitable kaleidoscope of flavors. It’s not just tart—it tastes green, it tastes red, sometimes it tastes grassy, sometimes floral. Always, it is fabulous. I prefer red rhubarb, because of the way it looks on a plate. I like to poach tiny squares of it in a vanilla-sugar syrup and serve it over ice cream, or alongside grilled duck breast, chicken or a thick fish fillet. Green rhubarb has a slightly softer tartness, and if you cook it quickly, so it holds its shape, it can look appealing. One split second of overcooking, though, and you’ve got a pretty unattractive situation. My solution: use green rhubarb in any dish where it’s not seen—cakes, tarts and crumbles. Save the red for showy moments when you want the oohs and aahs.
Morels are, like most mushrooms, entirely mysterious. The morel grows where it wants and when it wants; it likes moist areas around elm trees, but it also likes apple orchards and front yards. A neighbor was pedaling his bicycle down a country road the other day and he spied a group of morels in the yard of a home yet to be opened for the summer. He looked around, hopped the fence, and harvested them. I applauded. What good would it have done to leave them there, after all?
My good friend and local mushroom expert, Louis Garcia, wrinkles his brow and shakes his head when the subject of this wavy brown mushroom comes up. “Morels,” he says with a tone bordering on disgust. “They’re never in the same place from one year to the next. You can’t predict anything about them. Yes, they’re delicious, but give me a cèpe any day.” He’s reacting as an avid hunter who likes to go into the woods with an empty basket and return with one that’s overflowing.
Many of the morels sold at the market in France come from Eastern Europe, where foragers are numerous and forests are fertile. I buy them occasionally, but my tendency is to buy a large bag of dried morels once a year, for they reconstitute perfectly, turning everything they touch into something extraordinary. That said, I’ve heard it whispered that this could be a good year; I’m on high alert around my own tiny apple orchard, and I haven’t yet mowed my lawn in hopes of encouraging their appearance!
Sea robin (Eutrigla gurnardus) is a fish little known outside of France, where it is called grondin. I remember being on a fishing boat off Long Island and seeing sea robin in the net as by-catch. They had no market value, but the fisherman knew its gastronomic value, and took all he had home to cook for supper. Here in France they’re considered jewels in the rough, their scratchy grey skin and bony shape making them almost invisible next to orange-dotted flounder, silver skinned salmon, and noble, bluish sea bass. But their nondescript looks are deceiving; they are among the finest foods in the sea.
As for ramps, well, my own particular plot was intended to be ornamental. When I planted the garlicky l’ail des ours, I didn’t know they were ramps. Now that I know, I’m going to harvest some, thinly slice their little bulbs and leaves, and serve them as a side dish, dressed in a light hazelnut vinaigrette. The rest of the meal will be an ode to the season as I sauté sea robin fillets, and make a ragout of spring vegetables that will include onions and baby turnips, sweet carrots and—if they are ready—a handful of juicy peas, all bathed in a morel cream sauce.
Dessert will be either rhubarb poached in vanilla syrup and served with homemade vanilla ice cream, or a rhubarb almond tart.
RHUBARB TART WITH SWEET PIE PASTRY
TARTE A LA RHUBARBE A LA PATE SUCREE
This is a beautiful tart: huge, round and golden, it is both delicate and rustic. Try this recipe with other fruits as well—blueberries, apricots, plums, even apples.
3 tbsp red currant jelly, warmed
3 large eggs
½ cup (100 g) vanilla sugar
3 tbsp crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
3 tbsp flour
¼ cup (40 g) almond powder
1 lb (500 g) rhubarb, trimmed, peeled, and cut into ¼ inch (.75 cm) dice
One 10-1/2 inch (26 cm) pre-baked pâte sucrée tart shell
1. Preheat oven to 425º F (210º C).
2. Spread tart shell with red currant jelly.
3. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla sugar until the mixture is pale yellow. Whisk in crème fraîche. Sift in flour and whisk. Finally, whisk in half of the ground almonds.
4. Arrange rhubarb in an even layer in pastry shell. Pour egg mixture over rhubarb, shaking the tart pan so cream is evenly distributed over fruit. Sprinkle remaining ground almonds over the tart, place it on a baking sheet, and bake in center of oven until golden and puffed, about 30 minutes.
5. Remove tart from oven and remove sides of pan. Place tart on a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes before serving.
6 to 8 servings
Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. www.onruetatin.com. Her latest book, Nuts in the Kitchen, is published by HarperCollins. Find it in the France Today bookstore: www.francetoday.com/store
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of France Today