Ramps, Asparagus and Dandelion Greens Pizza

ramp, asparagus and dandelion green pizza

ramp, asparagus and dandelion green pizza

The longer I garden, the more I appreciate perennial vegetables. Plant them once, take care of them by weeding, watering and feeding the soil around them with good compost, and they’ll return reliably year after year. Many of these perennials are among the first edibles of spring, which seems to make them taste even more delicious to winter-weary taste buds.

dandelion greens

dandelion greens

Some perennial spring vegetables don’t even require planting. Dandelion greens, chicory, sorrel, and, later in spring, lambs quarters and nettles, are all wild plants that are abundant self-seeders (aka, weeds). All of them are best picked young and tender, before they’ve flowered (with nettles, be sure to wear gloves, to avoid the stinging hairs that are destroyed in cooking).

Many of these “weeds” are so delicious that vegetable breeders have come up with more refined versions sold through seed catalogues. Two of my favorites are super-cold hardy Italian Red Dandelion (it’s actually chicory) and Good King Henry, a member of the weedy Goose Foot family that tastes like spinach and can be harvested from early spring into fall.

Asparagus, unlike perennial weeds, takes a bit of work. It likes lots of good compost and requires watering all summer, or it won’t be productive year after year. Too, you have to keep grass from growing in amongst the shoots, and war with the dreaded asparagus beetle, which can wreak havoc.

One method of achieving both weed and bug suppression is to interplant asparagus with parsley and dill, which can out-compete grass and which asparagus beetles hate. The herbs are also a good use of space, providing a season long crop even after the 4th of July, when good gardeners let their asparagus grow into full, tall ferns to gather energy for next season.

purple asparagus

purple asparagus

It’s not too late to put in an asparagus bed this year, though you won’t be able to harvest any juicy spears until a few seasons have passed and the bed has filled in. Though asparagus can be grown from seed, the most productive plants are male clones (they don’t go to seed) bought as 2 or 3 year-old roots. Two widely available and good choices are “Jersey Supreme” and “Purple Passion.”

ramps and dandelion greens

ramps and dandelion greens

Ramps, if you’ve never encountered them, are a wild native woodland allium, related to both onions and garlic and tasting a bit like both. They’re happy at high, cool elevations, in the kind of moist mixed woodlands where trilliums and golden seal grows beneath maples and beeches, and can completely carpet the early spring forest floor. It seemed likely that ramps would grow around here, but though I scoured our woodlot every spring, I could never find wild ramps growing in it.

Finally, a few years ago, I took matters into my own hands and ordered a shipment of mature ramps from Ramp Farm Specialties in West Virginia. Owner Glen Facemire only ships his bulbs in February and March (seeds are available all the time), so when he heard that New Hampshire had a big snow storm brewing just as he was putting my ramps in the mail, he gave me a call to talk me through how to care for his “babies” until I could put them in the ground (it turned out that a couple of window boxes in a cold frame did the trick).

ramps in window box and cold frame

ramps in window box and cold frame

The ramps arrived huge and healthy, and now, a few seasons later, are beginning to spread both where I’ve planted them in the woods, and in the more cultivated sections of my garden. They’re particularly happy growing under the shade of the grape arbor. Though you can buy 3 dozen ramps for $24.75, the most economical way to order them is 1000 bulbs for

ramps growing under a grape arbor

ramps growing under a grape arbor

$194.00 (shipping is free). I’d suggest splitting an order with friends and scouting likely locations this summer (you’ll want to try several spots to be on the safe side). Do order early, so you don’t miss out, and be prepared with window boxes and a cold frame, just in case.

Early spring vegetables fresh from the garden don’t need much in the way of preparation. All of them are delicious cooked fast and hot with olive oil or with chopped bacon. They’re also perfect stir fried along with fresh spring chives, a bit of ginger and a little soy sauce combined with water or orange juice. Ramps and asparagus can be lightly tossed in oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, placed in a grill basket and cooked briefly on the grill.

Below you’ll find a recipe that combines dandelion greens, ramps, and asparagus cooked with bacon as the topping for pizza. Though the pizza dough needs a full day to rise (or overnight in the refrigerator), once it’s ready, the recipe goes together in a snap. Feel free to substitute store-bought dough if you’re short on time. Too, feel free to leave out the bacon if you’re a vegetarian, and to substitute in whatever fresh spring vegetables you have on hand. Spinach or escarole would be delicious.

And if you’re only feeding two people, divide the topping recipe in half. Store the extra pizza dough in the refrigerator in an oiled plastic bag and use it later in the week. It will be good for several days.

Ramp, Dandelion and Asparagus Pizza

for the dough:

  • scant 4 cups flour (can be up to ⅓ whole wheat)
  • ¼ teaspoon dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt (can be up to 2 teaspoons, if desired)
  • 1½ – 1¾ cups water (if your water is chlorinated, use spring or filtered water)

for the topping:

  • 4 slices thick bacon, cut into ½ inch chunks
  • 1 large bunch dandelion greens (about ½ pound), trimmed of roots, well washed in cold water and chopped
  • 1 large bunch ramps (about 10), trimmed of roots, well washed and chopped; or use 6 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large bunch asparagus (about 1 pound or more), trimmed, washed and chopped
  • 1½ pounds fresh mozzarella, broken up into chunks
  • hot red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper, to taste
  • good olive oil for drizzling

For the dough, combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the water (you will need the larger amount if using whole wheat flour) and stir well with a spoon until well combined – do not knead. If the mixture seems too dry (it should be quite sticky), add a little more water to incorporate all the flour.

Cover with plastic and set on a cool counter to rise. If it is very warm or you’d like to use the dough more than 18 hours later, place in the refrigerator. Allow the dough to rise until doubled – if it’s warm this will happen in about 12 hours, if it’s very cool, in about 18 hours.

When ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 450-500 degrees (my oven doesn’t go to 500 – use the higher heat if you can). If you have a pizza stone, place it on the top rack.

Divide the dough into 4 balls. Lightly oil them with olive oil, cover them with plastic and set aside on the counter to rise and soften while make the topping.

Heat a large skillet and add the bacon if using (otherwise, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and continue with the greens, below). Cook the bacon until it is beginning to brown. Remove the bacon from the pan, pour off most of the fat, and return the skillet to the heat. Add the dandelion greens, ramps or garlic, asparagus and bacon pieces, if using. Cook, stirring, until the greens are wilted and tender. Season to taste with hot red pepper, black pepper and salt (you may not need any salt, depending on the bacon). Remove the greens from the pan and set aside.

Turn the oven to broil to super-heat the pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza stone, place a large aluminum sheet tray in the oven to heat (do not use a tray that has a non-stick coating as it will burn).

Stretch the dough either by rolling with a rolling pin (you’ll need to use flour to keep the dough from sticking) or with your hands to a very thin, approximately 12-inch rough circle. Place the round on a well floured pizza peel (if you have one), or onto the back of a well floured aluminum sheet tray. Cover the dough to within about 1 inch of the edge with ¼ of the greens and then ¼ of the mozzarella (leave spaces between the pieces of cheese). Drizzle the pizza with a little olive oil.

Open the oven door and slide the pizza from the peel onto the pizza stone. If you are not using a pizza stone, carefully remove the hot sheet tray from the oven, sprinkle it with a little flour, then slide the pizza from the overturned sheet tray onto the hot sheet tray and return it to the oven.

The pizza will cook very quickly – in about 2-4 minutes, depending on your oven. If the pizza begins to burn (a few black spots are desirable, but not an over-all char), turn the broiler off, but leave the oven temperature at 450-500 degrees.

You may need to slide a spatula under the pizza and turn it, or turn the sheet tray, so that it cooks evenly. It is done when the edges are well browned, and black in spots. Remove from the oven, slide onto a cutting board, and cut up and serve immediately.

Repeat with the other three pieces of dough. Serves 4 generously.

Spring Moussaka, Two Ways

a baking dish of spring moussakaIt’s always a gamble, planting seeds in late fall in hopes of having a harvest in early spring. In the middle of last August, I sowed three long rows of Scarlet Nantes and White Satin carrots. By September, they were growing well; that is, until the deer came along and chomped them to the ground. After that, I kept them out of sight under fabric row cover.

over-wintered carrots in spring

over-wintered carrots in spring

And when the top few inches of soil finally froze, I spread a layer of straw over them several inches deep.

Timing the straw-spreading is tricky. Too early, and the ground doesn’t freeze until deep winter, creating a cozy home with a well-stocked pantry for voles and mice. Spread it too late, and you wind up with carrot-sicles that turn to mush in the spring thaw.

Last week, when the snow was finally off the garden, I peeked under the straw; this year I got lucky. There they were, all three rows of frost-sweetened carrots, nary a one nibbled by rodents. In another part of the garden, the parsnips, too, have been spared this year, and are super-sweet and tender. As soon as they begin to sprout they’ll grow woody, so now is the time to eat them. Under a glass-windowed cold frame, the radicchio and endive I cut to the ground last autumn, are sending up fresh growth from their roots and will be ready to harvest in late April or early May.

In my unheated greenhouse the mâche and kale that have been providing us with salads all winter are starting to bloom, to the delight of hungry honey bees, and will soon go to seed. I’ve begun to harvest the cold-loving greens I seeded inside in January and planted outside in February, along with the radishes and pea shoots I direct-seeded two months ago. Here and there, volunteers are sprouting up – parsley and fennel, lettuce and poppies, red shiso and dill.

In the greenhouse, too, the perennials, like dandelion greens, rhubarb, Red Venture celery, chives, and chervil, that took a little time off during the coldest weather, are now are big enough to pick. At this time of year we can also harvest small heads of cauliflower and broccoli, planted as sturdy small plants in September. These die back almost to their roots in winter, and miraculously reappear as soon as we get more than ten hours of light a day.

purple cauliflower in early spring

purple cauliflower, grown in an unheated greenhouse over the winter

Looking for a way to use up my carrot and parsnip harvest, I found a recipe in Leanne Kitchen’s beautiful cookbook, Turkey: More than 100 Recipes with Tales from the Road, for a moussaka made with veal and rich in roasted carrots. Because I have a mixed crew to feed in my house, some vegetarians, some carnivores, I decided to riff on Kitchen’s recipe, making two baking dishes, one with fresh purple cauliflower instead of meat, and another in which locally raised grass-fed beef replaced the veal. And because I had parsnips to work with as well as carrots, I used both.

The results were delicious – the creamy layer of lemon-scented béchamel sauce is a perfect foil for the tomato and roasted vegetable enriched bottom layer. Too, this dish, though it takes some time to put together and is probably best saved for a weekend project, is not only crammed with the vegetables we’re all supposed to be eating more of, but is also economical to make. The pound of ground beef in the meat version will feed six people easily, and cauliflower, even if it isn’t locally grown, is abundant and inexpensive at this time of year.

If you don’t want to make both versions, feel free to cut the béchamel and roasted vegetable recipes in half, and use whichever base, meat or cauliflower, you prefer.

Two Spring Moussakas

  • Lemon Béchamel Sauce (recipe below)
  • Roasted Carrots and Parsnips (recipe below)

    spring moussaka

    spring moussaka

  • Meat Moussaka Base (recipe below)
  • Cauliflower Moussaka Base (recipe below)
  • olive oil for the bottom of the baking pans

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use about 1 tablespoon of oil to grease the bottoms and sides of two baking dishes (anything approximating a 13 inch oval or an 8×11 inch rectangular dish will work).

Pour the meat base into one dish and the cauliflower base into the other dish. Spread them out evenly. Sprinkle half of the roasted vegetables over the meat base and the other half of the roasted vegetables over the cauliflower base. Spread half the béchamel over the meat and roasted vegetables and the other half of the béchamel over the cauliflower and roasted vegetables.

Place both dishes in the preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, turning at least once so the tops brown evenly. The moussakas are done when they are bubbling and browned in spots here and there on top. Serve hot. This can also be reheated the next day in a low oven or microwave.

Each moussaka serves 4-6 people.

Lemon Béchamel Sauce

  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 7 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • grated rind of one large lemon or 1½ small lemons (use organic if possible and wash well before grating)
  • 4 egg yolks, whisked together lightly in a bowl
  • several gratings of fresh nutmeg or 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the milk either in a microwave or on the stovetop until quite warm. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan. When the butter has melted, whisk in the flour. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, stirring often.

Whisk in the milk about 1 cup at a time, whisking until the mixture is smooth after each addition. Continue heating over medium-low heat, stirring almost constantly, being careful not to burn the bottom of the pot. Alternate between a wooden spoon that scrapes the mixture from the bottom (where it will thicken more quickly) and a whisk, to smooth the sauce. When the mixture has thickened and is just beginning to simmer a little, remove from the heat and whisk well to smooth.

Temper the yolks by pouring about 2 cups of the hot sauce into them, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the pot, whisking constantly. Whisk in the lemon rind, the nutmeg and the salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Cover with a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper placed right on the surface of the sauce to keep it from forming a skin. Set aside while preparing the rest of the moussaka.

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips:

  • 2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the carrots on one sheet tray and the parsnips on another. Divide the olive oil between the two trays, strip the leaves from the sprigs of thyme and divide between the trays and sprinkle both with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables to coat well with oil, thyme and salt and pepper. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes stirring the vegetables and turning the trays once or twice so they cook evenly. When the vegetables are softened and browned here and there, remove from the oven and set aside.

Meat Moussaka Base:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the beef and cook, breaking up the meat and mixing it with the onions and garlic. When still a little pink but mostly cooked, add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching, until thickened a bit and the flavors are well combined.

Cauliflower Moussaka Base:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 small head or 1/2 large head cauliflower, washed and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the cauliflower and cook, mixing it with the onions and garlic. When the cauliflower is beginning to soften, add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching, until thickened a bit and the flavors are well combined.

The Sweetest Carrots: August Seeding, March Harvest

Some years when I plant carrot seeds in late August, I feel like a chump. Once again, irrational hope has triumphed over the certainty that Bad Things will happen to those carrots over the winter.

over-wintered carrots in spring

over-wintered carrots in spring

Still, I protect the young shoots with hoops and row cover in October, then heap straw over them as winter hits hard. When a big storm comes through and lays waste to the row cover, I think, ah well – the frost will get them, or the voles.

But every now and then, the first day of spring comes and I know all over again that hope is bred-in-the-bone for a very good reason, and that reason is why I garden.

I LOVE to EAT.

These, btw, are Scarlet Nantes and White Satin carrots. Survivors of winter, 2012-2013. And sweet as Tupelo honey.