Backyard Dinner

Some nights,  I can simply dread the question of what to eat for dinner.  But spring is quite different. When spring rolls around, the task of dinner is elevated to a joyous and inspiring occasion,  fueled by the exciting arrival of fresh greens and vibrant flavors. Spring also flings open the doors of the kitchen to the outside world, pulling in all the freshness and wildness of the awakening earth to the staleness of our winter confinement.  Dinner just seems far more magical somehow, when it involves going outside and plucking things growing just out the backdoor.

So tonight, I raced home with dinner on the foremost of my mind – wanting to bring in all that fresh growth and deliciousness that the earth offers us so graciously after the barrenness of winter. Even we, who as a culture are hardly deprived of variety and freshness during our long winter sojourn, can still find the immense sense of excitement and delight that goes with plucking that first tender growth from the earth and tasting it’s vibrant greenness. Imagine how it must have felt then to our ancestors, coming into the spring nearing starvation and with many long weeks deprived of any thing fresh at all. To find that first growth was to restore life, to awaken again – because the taste of spring is the taste of being alive.

And so it should be of no surprise then to find that the vibrant greenness offered up to us by the earth at this time is the very thing we need to move into the warmth and energy of the light half of the year.  We find nutrient rich greens like dandelion and nettle growing everywhere, which supply a much needed boost of nutrition after months without fresh vegetables (diseases of nutrient deficiency like scurvy were all too common visitors to our ancestors in late winter, but were quickly remedied by the consumption of such wild greens). We find spicy and bitter greens and fresh herbs like wild leek and garlic mustard that stimulate digestive function and enhance elimination of toxins (and parasites) accumulated from the heavy winter diet. All in all, we find the nutrients and stimulation that awaken our systems and restore our vitality – helping us prepare for the work of the year ahead.

Needless to say, as soon as I arrived home this evening,  I grabbed my basket and headed out the back door in search of edible things, and I hope you don’t mind if I bring you along with me. In the garden, I found old friends and new ones appearing happily in the warming soil.

Spicy new oregano shoots…..

Tender new growth from a late fall planting of cutting mix and mache that overwintered….

Delicate young rhubarb stems…

And a few shallots that escaped our notice in the fall and survived for another year…

I nipped a little of each of these for my basket, and ventured further up in the yard, where the wild things grow….

First, and of course, I found my dear friend dandelion growing abundantly in the lawn:

and here’s a little succulent plant you might not know – a sedum known as orphine (Sedum purpureum) that make a delicious edition to salads when they are young and tender…

Then, I ventured a little further into the forest and found one of my most favorite spring delicacies of all…the ramp:

I took the first tender cutting of mesclun mix and mache, snippets of shallot tops, oregano shoots and parsley, bitter and delicious dandelion greens, wild strawberry leaves and orphine tips,and chopped wild ramp greens and made myself a delicious salad:

Now, such a salad as this needs hardly any dressing up….a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper are all you need to highlight the array of flavors.

And now, for the main course. Two of my favorite spring treats – asparagus and ramps, roasted and served on a crispy phyllo tart with marinara, goat cheese, and kale:

To make, start by roughly chopping a good fistful of leeks, first separating the greens from the fleshy part. Chop a half bunch of asparagus to a similar size – about 1/2 – 1 inch long chunks. Be sure to cut off the woody asparagus ends and disgard.

Toss the leeks and asparagus lightly in olive oil with a little salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes at 425.

While the veggies are roasting, take your phyllo out of its packaging and lay it under a damp towel. Take out 1 sheet, and lay it over a well oiled 11 by 7 inch pan (or something close to it). Brush the phyllo sheet well with olive oil, and repeat with another sheet of phyllo. Continue laying on new sheets and brushing each with oil until you’ve laid down about 7-10 sheets. Place a slightly smaller pan over the phyllo, and place the whole thing (the smaller pan on top of the phyllo)  in the oven for 7 minutes. Then, remove the top pan and let cook for an additional three, or until the center look golden and crispy.

Take your phyllo crust out of the oven and spread liberally with your favorite pasta or marinara sauce. Over this, spread your chopped leek greens, kale or other green leafy (spinach? Chard?), and then spread your roasted veggies over the top. Sprinkle with goat cheese, feta and /or mozzarella if you like, and finish with a light grating of Parmesan. Bake in the oven at 350 for an additional 10-12 minutes, to melt the cheese, and then wallah!

Enjoy the flavors of your own backyard!

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