Spring: Ris & the Ramp

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Red veined Sorrel, ramps, watermelon radishes, beets and white Hakurei turnips. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Since living in Washington I have grown accustomed to making a big deal over spring. Spring is a THING! It’s a happening.

My heart skips a beat at the sight of the first robin or the first peeping crocuses. Soon the trees will burst with gigantic magnolia blooms and a little later the glorious cherry blossoms will summon the photo-snapping tourists. The stretches of daffodils color the drive along the parkways, and the tulips adorn front yards with splashes of pinks, whites, purples and yellows.

But it seems the wait is a slightly longer for spring at the farmers’ markets. I drive myself sick with anticipation. I look for the appearance of ramps that indicate the beginning of Spring produce. I hadn’t heard of ramps until a few years ago when a celebrated Washington chef, Ris Lacoste brought them to my attention.

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Ramps. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ris is a dedicated mentor, contributor and educator. I am genuinely fond of her. I admire her sincerity, humility, her wit and her brilliance. She is not only one of DC’s top chefs, but her generosity of spirit allows to sit on many a board, consult and advise many restaurants and organizations, teach and mentor young aspiring chefs. Over the years, Ris and I would run into each other at the store and at every community event in the city where we never missed a chance to chat. She was in the restaurant business and I worked in the food retail business. We had loads to talk about and share.
So when Ris mentioned ramps one day, I took note. I went searching and researching for this illusive plant that turns out is a small wild leek, native to the Appalachian mountain region in eastern North America—now how would I ever have known that?—It is foraged in the woods. Ramps  have a short seasonal appearance that grace the market stands in April. Communities in Southern Appalachia celebrate ramps with annual festivals and restaurant chefs, plan whole menus around them.

But there is also a controversy around the ramp. Chefs may have glorified it but botanists have scorned its over-harvesting. It takes five to seven years for ramps to produce seed, and a year at least, for the seeds to germinate. Quebec, Canada, has banned its sale since 1995 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned its harvesting since 2002. For further detail this NYTimes article tells it all.

Boycott or buy?
I usually get carried away with my shopping at the market, often coming home with enough stuff for a family of eight. Maybe it’s an exaggeration. But seriously, the amount of produce that could go bad while waiting for me to find time to process is overwhelming. I therefore commit to a specified budget. A $5 small bouquet of ramps that dwindles down to a mouthful when cooked, may not be the most economical way for a poor foodie to be spending her money. Maybe I will buy one small bunch as a ceremonial act of confirmation— to mark the beginning of the season and to bring in the Spring.

That said, there are so many other lovely temptations that won’t burn a hole in my pocket. Ramps are gorgeous but so is everything else at this time of year. I cannot resist the red-veined baby sorell, the zucchini blossoms, and the baby new potatoes, the spring onions and baby beets, not to forget the white Hakurei turnips and rainbow radishes as well.

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For dinner I will make a salad with roasted beets, sliced turnips and baby sorrel, and a Spring Minestrone Soup that was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

Here’s her recipe: I have substituted quinoa for the brown rice and I have added lemon juice for a touch of brightness. I find quinoa earthy and delicate in flavor, overall more nutritious, and it takes less time to cook. If you are looking for a heartier bowl of soup, brown rice is more filling and comforting. You can use a frozen, cooked, store-bought version of both. I always keep a bag of each in my freezer for the occasional need. (Or you can use your own cooked, frozen quinoa or rice. They freeze easily. Place your left-over cooked rice or qinoa in a zip-lock bag, pat to release air, and seal).

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Spring Minestrone (with 0r without Ramps)

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 shallots or Spring onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced(Bunch of ramps if available)
(Bunch of ramps if available, washed and chopped)
3/4 cup Quinoa (cooked)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas trimmed and cut in half
8 spears asparagus trimmed diagonally into 1 “ pieces
1/2 cup green petite peas (frozen or fresh if you have them)
Lemon juice, Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil, sauté the shallots and garlic, (and chopped ramps) until soft. Add the stock and bring to a boil. add the the vegetables and cook until desired tenderness. I like them crisp and bright green, that will only take a few minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa. Add lemon juice, S & P to taste.

As for my bouquet of ramps, I photographed it, washed and minced it, sautéed it with fresh thyme and added it to my sautéed chicken livers, finishing it off with a splash of sherry.

Happy Spring!

Years ago, I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com/ after I had come across her book in 2007. You may not come back to my blog ever again after you’ve seen hers. But I need to give credit where credit is due and after all, my blog will always reference the books, cooks and people who have inspired me over the years.

All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Mona’s Gift

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Rendering of the book as I remember it. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

The very first cookbook that inspired and encouraged me was a Christmas gift from my aunt Mona. Title: “La Cuisine Est Pour Les Enfants”; translated: “Cooking is for Children”. It was a large format book, maybe 12” x 16” with a hard glossy cover and spiral bound. Large colorful illustrations adorned every page, and the recipes were “hand-written” in a large chalk-like black script. I might have been twelve or thirteen, and thought to myself “I am not a child!”, this looks too easy! I flipped through it and put it aside. The illustrations looked intentionally like a child’s drawings but were luscious and inviting. I was more interested in the technique and the medium than in what they represented.

One day, I cannot recall when exactly, after a hormonal bout of depression and desperation—the usual teen, over-the-top feelings of rebellion and alienation— I was searching for something to occupy and distract me. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover and emerged challenged to try every recipe for my family’s Sunday meal.

Most Sundays, my mother and paternal grandma took a break from cooking and we went out to eat when my father was in town, or, if he was not, we ate left-overs. By then, my maternal grandparents had passed away and we were no longer gathering at their home with my mother’s siblings and their families for huge Sunday luncheons. With my new proposition, my family would have to forgo the Sunday outing, accept and enjoy my cooking, and contribute to cleaning up after it was all over.

Much to my surprise my mom agreed and perhaps encouraged me. Of course she helped as well, but I wanted to remember the experience as a culinary feat that I achieved single-handedly. To this day, I brag about cooking since I was fourteen. It is true. For several Sundays, in the heat of a Beirut summer, I took control of that kitchen and prepared the most outlandish dishes from that cookbook. “Outlandish” because they were not the dishes that my mom or grandma prepared, “outlandish” because they required special shopping for ingredients that were not necessarily available in our pantry or refrigerator, and “outlandish”  because they had little to do with our Mediterranean seasonal diet. I took the whole business seriously and beamed with pride when my parents hummed with approval, or expressed their polite satisfaction with forced glee.

I remember a Quiche Lorraine—goodness how boring— but at least it didn’t break the bank like the Filet En Croute! My favorite was the Carbonade Flamande, a beef and prune stew that seemed really exciting because it required cooking the whole thing in beer, or the Coq au Vin that require red wine! Super adventurous and daring for a fourteen year old. I wonder now how that met my mother’s approval and how eating a hot beef or chicken stew could be appreciated in the dead of summer. But my family didn’t seem to blink. I never heard a complaint. On the contrary, they met my dishes with welcoming enthusiasm, pretending perhaps, as if it was the most delicious food they had tried—not that French cuisine was unfamiliar to us, but it hadn’t really made it into our pots and pans. It was my own initiation into the kitchen and that would not have been the same had I begun with my mother’s dishes. I would like to think that Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child, neither of whom I had even heard of then, would have been proud of me!

You may have gathered already that the cookbook was definitely not meant for children. Perhaps for adolescents, but NOT, in any way, for children. It left me exhausted, but cured from my depression. Luckily for everyone, I probably never delved into the dessert section (I don’t recall ever making the Clafoutis or the Choux a la creme! Can you imagine! The entrees were complex enough as it were, and enough of an exercise in tolerance and perseverance for cook and subjects alike. Luckily we survived the few weeks of experimentation and the result was proof enough for me that I was loved and worthy of the family cooks.

That book was where my life in the kitchen began and I have my aunt to thank for it. That gift was only the beginning of her influence. She would continue to inspire me with her unconventional, independent style. She was not a conformist. She was emancipated in her life and in her cooking. She often impressed us with fondue dinner parties and a few international dishes that were unheard of at the time within the family circle. Her Moroccan chicken with prunes and almonds was a recipe my mother and I would adopt and make for years to come. She opened my eyes to different cuisines. Her sense of adventure and accomplishment both in her career and in her kitchen inspire me to this day.

Breaking Bread

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Paper collage © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Exodus

With the last few decades of war and upheaval in the Middle-East, my family and friends began their exodus in the mid-nineteen seventies. Moving to different continents and various cities we searched for asylum, safety and stability. For those of us in our late teens and early twenties, the initial excuse was to further our education. But over the years with safety and lack of jobs becoming a concern, entire families and older generations followed their young and their friends, leaving homes and lives behind and starting over in lands that could offer them opportunity and safe haven. Young and old would begin new lives, acculturating themselves to their newly found environments. Dreams were broken, family ties and social structure threatened and loss was traumatic. Isolation was unbearable at times. Uncertainty over our future was the new normal.

My extended family was dispersed over a few continents. We would grow apart culturally, adopting our new environments and making new friends. When we’d meet up again, maybe once a year, we were guests in each others’ homes, politely poking and scratching the surface to help uncover and reveal our new selves. The discovery and revelation of our differences was often painful. Eventually we’d understand, forgive and accept. We had new opinions, new politics and ideologies—change is the name of the game when you are trying to survive and fit in.

Redemption in food

Throughout the years, somehow food was the only constant in a sea of variables. We all transported and exported our traditions into our kitchens. We quickly populated our pantries with staples we sought and found at specialty stores and spice shops . We called each other long-distance for “recipes” or what I should label “how to”s: “How do you make okra stew?” I would call my mother 6,000 miles away in an eight-hour difference time zone. “Do you use lemon juice or Dibs (pomegranate molasses)? …How much garlic?… Can I make it without tomato paste?”
In reality, our family dining table was fractured and scattered, but we managed a virtual reconstruction, where our mothers and grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends would join us in our kitchens and at our tables to share every dish together in spirit and in soul.

One thing was certain though, no matter how different our lifestyles had become, we all maintained one basic passion for the food—food we had grown up with, food that was the link to our culture, to our mothers and grandmothers. When we met, we indulged in an orgy of the most delicious dishes, seasonal and unseasonal: it might have been July but Easter pastries, Christmas puddings and special occasion desserts would be made especially to welcome us “Home”.
Regardless of location, the host kitchen turned into a classroom of culinary instruction, where participation was instinctive and enthusiastic. All hands and minds were on deck, working together like clockwork. Notes and photographs were taken. Documentation was essential. We’d all contribute to coring Kusa (courgettes), or plucking the leaves off the stems of the fresh Mulukhia bundles. We meticulously stuffed and rolled grape leaves in an assembly line, piling them up in awe and admiration.  We observed, we chatted and sometimes we sipped on tea or coffee, while the room buzzed around us with frenetic energy.

Breaking bread

Food gatherings have become ceremonial. Around the table, we meet each other with warmth and acceptance. We embrace the adopted friends and newly-found neighbors. We try to replicate the lost, repair the broken and preserve the most basic part of our lives with an added openness and excitement of sharing and discovering what each of us has reaped along the way.

When we visit family, travelers haul ingredients, hosts spend weeks in preparation of dishes they’ll freeze or refrigerate. The first question asked is: “what would you like to eat? …what dish have you missed?…what can I prepare for you?” After the initial chaotic moments of emotional ebb and flow, the hugs and the tears, we settle down a little and then we all head for the kitchen!

The food we prepare is loaded with meaning and promise of soothing comfort. Old flavors that link us to our past, whisked together with new life ingredients, promise to bring resolution and healing. Whether we revive old recipes or embrace and experiment with new cuisines, our kitchens remain the meeting place where tradition is perpetuated and innovation is welcomed; a place where we form and fuse new bonds and widen our circles of food, family and friends.

I write this with love and appreciation for my family and friends (you know who you are) who have fed me, taught me, inspired me and spoiled me with their generosity over the course of my life and in memory of my mother especially, my father, my aunts and grandmothers and a few good friends who left us too soon but with whom we ate and drank insatiably.