Foraging For My Supper with Peter Blush in Stratford and What To DoWIth Fiddleheads and Ramps
|Peter Blush of Pucks Plenty|
When I anticipated my trip to check out Savour Stratford, the city's annual culinary festival that celebrates all things food and drink in Perth County, I was only expecting to eat. Being home to the Stratford Festival, one would expect that they would have to have a couple of fine dining restaurants, like Rundles, to service the theatre crowd. I assumed we would have some nice meals out, maybe visit a couple of shops selling some local cheese or something.... how much could a small town like Stratford actually offer a big city girl like me, right?
Wrong. This place is like some sort of culinary super magnet, attracting all sorts of chefs, cooks, coffee and tea sommeliers (did you know that even existed?), foragers and farmers, cheese makers and funeral directors turned chocolatiers. What kind of town actually starts up a Chef School primarily so that they can always be sure that they are creating top level talent to hopefully stay on in Stratford and work in their restaurants? Even the chefs who leave to work elsewhere in the world seem to constantly come back to support the school, the endless festivals and ongoing offerings like the GE Chef Series cooking classes held on a regular basis.
|some of the wonderful people I met who are all deeply involved in their community and with each other|
It was day number three of our media tour to sample the offerings of Savour Stratford and everyone was very tired. We had attended the opening night of Stratford and a performance of King Lear the night before, capping off a jam packed day full of eating, drinking and meeting local business owners to hear their stories and sample their wares and I was knackered. I am no spring chicken and all this wining and dining from lunch to bedtime was tiring me out. I know, I know, first world food blogger problems.
Who knew that a town of 32,000 smack dab in the middle of farmer's fields and foresty type areas could pack such a culinary wallop? Frankly, I was afraid that I was just not up to a morning out in the woods. I am also very much a city girl who has never really pined for a cottage or a cabin in the wilderness and much prefers a quaint Inn over a tent any day. Is there a Starbucks along the Avon Trail? Well appointed washrooms? Will I be able to charge my iphone out there??
After a slow moving morning coffee at Balzacs, we set out to meet up with Peter Blush from Pucks Plenty . The Balzacs in Stratford also happens to be the original Balzacs , opened in 1996 just so you know and their actual roastery is in Stoney Creek, Ontario. Not everything wonderful originates in Toronto, as hard as that might be to believe for some of you die hards.
Peter Blush is as interesting a character as you are ever going to meet. Born in England, raised in the United States, he was a war correspondent in Vietnam. After the war ended he moved to Quebec, running a B&B out of his home while working as a freelance commercial artist, where he remained until his move to Stratford in 2005.
He said that he used wild mushrooms for his guest's breakfasts at the B&B, but it wasn't until he met Linda Walton after moving to Stratfrod that he got serious about foraging for wild edibles. Of Linda, he says,
"Linda Walton of Stratford worked for the Toronto Zoo. Retired, she began to study wild edibles and introduced me to several varieties of mushrooms (edible and poisonous) and edibles which served as a base of knowledge for me that set me on my path to foraging."
If all that was not enough, he is also an accomplished novelist. His 2012 mystery novel, Boreal Dreams, was shortlisted for the Robertson Davies Prize and he is currently working on his next novel, The Art and Happenstance of Foraging.
ramps freshly plucked from the ground
|ramps after a good wash and a root trim|
We met up with Peter and he took us out to explore the Avon trail in search of some of the very last ramps of the season. It's a short drive out of town to one of the spots where he has permission to forage. Because he is a conscientious forager, land owners are happy to let him take people out on their property without having to worry that he is going to do anything that would cause any harm to their forest. We found a big bed of ramps (wild leeks) after a short hike along the trail and he was pleased to see that they still looked good. After pinching off a leaf, tasting one and then passing a piece along for each of us to try, he deemed them worthy of eating. The longer you wait to harvest them, the more flavour the leaves lose but these were still quite fragrant and tender.
Using his trusty little spade, he would gently dig up a small patch and remove the individual ramps, shake them to get rid of the excess dirt and then move along to another spot and do it again, taking great care to not to take too much from each spot. If you would go and just dig up a giant patch, willy nilly, the leeks would not come back the next year and eventually, the patch would disappear. This is one of the reasons Blush has stopped taking large orders from local chefs. Having to go out and get ten pounds of wild ginger at once just no longer sat well with him and now he advocates only taking what you need for today and seems quite happy to simply share his knowledge with others instead.
Along the path we were introduced to saddle mushrooms growing out of the base of a tree, which he assures won't kill me but which are tough and would require a long stew to make them easy to eat so we left them alone. It's funny, but after showing us that the flowered tops of the garlic mustard plant are edible, I suddenly see them everywhere and happily snack on them for the rest of the walk, expecting to fall over dead at any second but here I am. Clearly, I lived to tell.
Farther along, on a bit of an incline, he showed us where he finds wild ginger and instructs us in the proper technique to use to cut off a piece without damaging the root system, thus ensuring that it will continue to thrive year after year. Using his knife, he scrapes off the dirt and lets everyone have a smell and we return to our cars so we can drive to another spot where the fiddleheads are found.
The view from the car is of high ferns, blowing in the breeze and my heart sank. Clearly we are too late for picking fiddleheads because they are only edible before they unfurl and these were all completely open and mature but we got out to take a walk anyway. The owner of this particular patch of land hates fiddleheads so Peter is free to take as much as he likes from a patch of ferns that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see here. Almost immediately, Peter spied a little, curled up fiddlehead poking out between three large ferns and he had us all bend down for a look. He said this was unusual but might be attributed to our very cold, long winter - it seems like the winter has affected many things out in the nature in ways that are uncommon this year. He pinches off the little fiddlehead, we all marvel at it and continue with our walk, clutching our baggies and hoping we might be lucky enough to find a few more.
It turns out I have fiddle eye. I feel like some sort of fiddlehead whisperer out there, moving amongst the ferns and the picky stinging nettle like a ninja in search of more of these second crop fiddleheads. Eventually, I fill 1/4 of my bag with them and if my group didn't just start leaving without me, I could have kept fiddlehead hunting for hours. In truth, my success says more about my diminutive height and proximity to the low growing plant than my ability to become the fiddlehead, but it's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Back at the car, dirty, sweaty but proudly clutching my baggie full of ramps and fiddleheads, I can't believe how much fun I just had out in the woods and I was already planning the meal I was going to fashion out of my bounty. Nobody is more surprised than I am that I was actually disappointed that my time out in the woods had come to an end and I barely noticed that my iphone was at a horrifying 5%.
You can book a simple foraging excursion for $30 a person for any Saturday or Sunday from early spring to late fall, although he is flexible so if you want to do a weekday forage, just contact him.
He is very involved in Savour Stratford and besides his participation in the actual two day event in July, they also present The Pucks Plenty Culinary Foraging Experience a few times a year. After foraging for your wild edibles, you return to Stratford for a feast featuring all sorts of local cheeses, breads etc and tea from Stratford Tea Leaves as well as Ontario beers and wines. All that for a modest cost of $45 sounds like a fine day to me.
Fiddleheads with Brown Butter and Potatoes
Not really a recipe as much as a guide: Parboil fingerling potatoes until a knife inserts into the middle easily. Drain and put in an ice bath to cool off and then drain and set aside. In another pot of boiling, salted water, blanch the fiddleheads for one minute, strain out and remove to an ice bath to cool, strain again and set aside. If you aren't using them right away, make sure to dry everything off by setting out on clean kitchen towels or paper towel.
When time to eat, melt butter in a saute pan until it turns brown and starts to foam. Throw in the potatoes and toss in the hot butter until warm and then add in the fiddleheads, toss around another minute or two until warmed through, add a pinch of kosher salt, a few grinds of pepper and serve.For a serving of four I use about 1 1/2 lbs of potatoes, two handfuls of fiddleheads and about 3 tbls of butter.
Crispy Fiddleheads with Ramp Pesto
adapted from The Gouda Life
2 scant cups fiddleheads, washed and dried
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup breadcrumbs ( I used finely ground whole wheat Misura rusks I had on hand)
*1/4 cup red lentil flour*1/2 tsp Original Herbamare
a few grinds black pepper
1 bunch wild leeks or ramps
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
rind from 1 preserved lemon
garnished with garlic mustard flowers
*I use the lentil flour to add some protein and I like the nutty flavour but if you don't want to make some, just use 3/4 cup breadcrumbs. Same goes for the herbamare - I like the flavour kick it gives but if you don't have that, just use kosher salt.
make the pesto first:
Wash the leeks really well to remove all traces of dirt, remove the roots and roughly chop. Put in the bowl of a food processor along with the bulbs, the pumpkin seeds, almonds, parmesan and the preserved lemon. Pulse until finely ground before you start streaming in the olive oil with the motor running. You will use between 1/3 and 1/2 cup of oil, depending on how thick you want it.
Taste and add salt and pepper to taste, starting with 1/4 tsp of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
Wash your fiddleheads really well. I like to put them in a brown paper bag and give them a really vigorous shake. Then reach in and remove the fiddleheads gently, leaving all of the stuff that falls off them behind in the bag. Now you soak and rinse 3 or 4 times or until the water is pretty clear of debris. You don't have to dry them since you are tossing them in the egg.
Beat two eggs in a shallow bowl add a little pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Set aside
Mix the breadcrumbs, red lentil flour, Herbamare and pepper in another shallow bowl.
Preheat the oven to 400F and oil a baking rack that you will set on top of a baking sheet.
Dip the fiddleheads into the egg and then toss them in the crumbs and set them on the rack until all of the fiddleheads are done. Bake for about 12 minutes until golden and crispy.
Remove from the oven and let cool.
Serve the fiddleheads with the pesto as dip. Serves about 4 people
Ramp Pesto Pasta with Shrimpserves 4
2 tbls olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 shallot, minced
2 dozen shrimp, cleaned and deveined
1/2 cup fresh or frozen baby peas
heaping 1/2 cup ramp pesto
1/4 cup chicken stock
salt, if needed and a few grinds of black pepper
fresh parmesan for serving
(reserve about a cup of pasta water)
bring a pot of salted water to the boil and cook spaghetti until al dente.
While pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over med heat in a saute pan and saute the garlic and onion for a couple of minutes, til softened, stirring often. Don't let the shallot or garlic brown - we just want them to soften. Add the shrimp and saute those for a couple of minutes and when they are almost cooked but not 100% pink, add in the pesto and peas, stir that around for another minute to cook off the rawness of the ramps a little bit. Pour in the chicken stock and continue to stir and bring it to a simmer and take off the burner. Taste and add salt if needed and a few grinds of black pepper.
By now, your pasta is done so drain that and dump the drained spaghetti into the pan and toss it, mixing thoroughly. If it seems too dry, start adding the reserved pasta water, a little bit at a time until it's nice and creamy.
To serve, grate some fresh parmesan on top.