After a long winter, the green explosion of spring is breathtaking. When you live in a place that’s frozen for plenty of the year like Minnesota, you learn to appreciate Spring that much more, and if you’re like me, you want to stuff your greedy face full of all of the treats you’ve been waiting to see since the last season.
I’m not the only one that goes wild for Spring veggies though. In Rome they have a dish that celebrates yearly rebirth, called vignarola, or vignole. Basically you take a bunch of spring vegetables and stew them with a little pork, some onions, and a bunch of artichokes. It gets cooked until its all soft and army green, which, although we in the United States might not find that appetizing to look at, makes the flavor of the vegetables blend together to create a nice harmony.
I thought I’d make a vignarola using Midwest spring vegetables, since we have plenty. Peas, favas, and asparagus, the usual suspects are here, but what makes this really special is the vegetal variety. Instead of onions, I used ramps, as well as their leaves. Since artichokes aren’t available yet, I cooked Burdock just like the Italians might artichokes: braised with some lemon and stock until they’re tender and soft. Fiddleheads add some great texture and interest, and dock leaves add another green hue.
Finally, every thing is pulled together by some icy wild peppermint. You could substitute spearmint, (traditionally I’m pretty sure they used pennyroyal) but since I just discovered my first patch of wild peppermint I’ve been putting it in everything. Mint and Spring vegetables are a match made in heaven, and it’s the real secret to the “wows” you’ll get from serving something like this, so don’t be shy with it.
This recipe is all about improvisation to me. To get the feel of the dish though, I’d say it’s important to have some peas, favas and mint, as well as artichokes or burdock, but beyond that it could really be anything you want. Some recipes I’ve seen add wilted greens, some don’t. Some add pork, some omit it. Play around and come up with a combo of vegetables you like, the possibilities are really endless.
Oh! I Almost forgot another great part. Fresh vegetables like this love rich oil, in Italy they would garnish each portion with a couple glugs of nice olive oil. Sadly we don’t grow olives in the Midwest, but we do have something that is pretty darn comparable: virgin sunflower oil. My favorite variety is Smudes, and it’s awesome. You could definitely use some nice cold-pressed olive oil if you want, but I really recommend searching for some sun oil, it’s got a really potent, interesting flavor.
Serves 4 as an entree. Think of it like you would a hearty vegetable soup. Serve with a crusty piece of bread and it’ll make a nice, light meal. If you omit the pork it’s a vegan paradise.
- 2 oz nice slab bacon, diced 1/2 in
- 1 cup asparagus, sliced diagonally 1/2 inch thick
- 1 cup shelled english peas (you can sub frozen, if you do, don’t blanch them)
- 1 cup shelled fava beans (you can sub frozen, if you do, don’t blanch them. Look for frozen favas in asian grocery stores, they’re way cheap, and will be labeled “broad beans”)
- 1 cup fresh fiddle head ferns
- 8 large ramps, leaves removed and sliced into 1 inch strips, bulbs sliced
- 3 cups curly dock or kale (if you use kale, blanch it like the peas, asparagus and favas. Don’t blanch dock since it won’t keep it’s color anyway.)
- 2.5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade, if you use store bought, go easy on the salt. Water or vegetable stock could be substituted in a pinch
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1/8 cup virgin sunflower oil
- Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 cup braised burdock (recipe follows)
- 1/4 cup fresh peppermint or spearmint, shredded or torn
- Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a rolling boil. One at a time, add the asparagus, peas, favas, and lastly the fiddleheads (add them last since they turn the water a swampy color). Cook each type of vegetable for 1 minute, remembering to allow the water to return to a boil before adding the next vegetable. Remove each of the vegetables and cool in an ice bath, then drain and reserve until needed. If you are using fresh favas and peas, cook each of them longer than the other vegetables, say two minutes, especially the favas since they tend to take a while to get tender.
- In a large, high sided pan, render the bacon on medium heat until crisp. Discard half of the fat, then add the sliced ramp bulbs and cook until translucent, 1 minute. Season the ramps lightly with salt.
- Add the blanched vegetables, chicken stock and the burdock and cook until they are soft and tender, about 5 minutes. Add the ramp leaves, curly dock and wilt. Finally add the peppermint at the last minute.
- Double check the seasoning for salt and pepper, then serve immediately in heated bowls by scooping out the vegetables, ladling some of the remaining broth over each portion, and finally garnishing each bowl equally with the sunflower oil.
- 1 large burdock or gobo burdock, this should be about a lb
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 clove of garlic, whacked with the back of a knife
- 1 cup dry white wine
- Peel the burdock if it’s big and wider than 2 in, if it’s thin, scrub it with a scouring pad to avoid wasting product. As you peel or scrub the burdock, immediately dip it into water seasoned with lemon juice from 3 of the lemon quarters, which will stop it from oxidizing. Reserve the last lemon wedge for seasoning the braise.
- When the burdock is peeled, dice it into 1in chunks, then put it in a sauce pan with the remaining ingredients and cover with water. Bring the mixture to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook the burdock covered like this for 1 hour, or until very tender. You definitely want to err on the side of overcooking here. When the burdock is completely soft, transfer it to a container to cool, and reserve until needed.