Birds are chirping, trees are budding and landscaping crews are out in force. It’s spring, and while we are still weeks away from the rhubarb, asparagus and spinach harvests, a few edible green things are actually poking through the ground right now. First up are early alliums including spring onions, ramps and garlic scapes. Take advantage of these farm market harbingers to add fresh flavor to your April meals. In deciding how to use them, it helps to know which is which:
Spring onions may look like scallions, but you’ll notice that their white parts are bulbous. This is because they are actually just very young onions with immature bulbs. They’re less pungent than mature onions, but a little spicier than scallions. Cooked, they become sweet and soft. Try them in stir-fries, sautéed with peas, or cooked and then puréed with chicken broth and a little cream in a seasonal soup.
Garlic scapes are the green shoots of hardneck garlic plants. Young shoots are tender enough to be eaten raw, sprinkled over salads or garnishing blanched vegetables or baked potatoes. As they age, they become tough and fibrous, and are better chopped fine and cooked. Either way, they have a distinct but gentle garlic flavor with much less bite than chopped raw garlic.
Ramps are wild spring leeks. Flavor-wise, they are a cross between garlic and scallions. Their slim white root ends are more pungent than their tender, edible leaves. You could forage for them yourself, but, because they closely resemble poisonous Lily of the Valley, it’s probably better to buy them at a farm market from an experienced forager who is sure of the difference. Saute chopped ramps, leaves and all, before using them as a flatbread topping, stirring into pasta, or filling an omelet.
A great way to showcase any of these is in cong you bing, the Chinese pancakes usually made with scallions. In China and Taiwan, scallion pancakes are a popular street food and on-the-go breakfast, a savory equivalent to the muffin. I usually serve them as an appetizer with cocktails, or alongside soy-glazed salmon or steaks for dinner. Spring onions, garlic scapes or ramps work equally well as a substitute for scallions.
SPRING ONION PANCAKES
Mixing the dough with hot water makes it tender. Rolling it out, then rolling it up, then shaping the roll into a spiral and rolling it flat again may seem like a lot of work. But all of that shaping results in pancakes with flaky layers that make them unique.
2 1⁄2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup very hot tap water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 cup finely chopped spring onions (white and light green parts), garlic scapes, or ramps (bulbs and leaves)
1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
1⁄4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon sriracha (optional)
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and water. Stir with a rubber spatula until a rough dough forms. Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand 30 minutes.
2. Lightly sprinkle a countertop with cornstarch. Turn dough onto countertop and knead briefly until dough is cohesive but still a little lumpy, 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the countertop with a little more cornstarch. Use a rolling pin sprinkled with cornstarch to roll the dough into a 10-inch-by-20-inch rectangle.
4. Lightly brush the dough with sesame oil. Sprinkle with salt. Sprinkle with 1 cup spring onions.
5. Starting from the long end, roll the dough up into a tight cylinder. Cut the cylinder into 4 pieces and roll each piece into a coil.
6. Use the rolling pin to roll each coil into a flat pancake about 6 inches in diameter. Repeat with remaining dough pieces.
7. In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add a pancake. Cook, turning once, until both sides are golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes total, adjusting the heat as necessary. Repeat, adding more oil to the pan with each batch, until all pancakes are cooked.
8. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar and sriracha if using in a small bowl and serve on the side with the hot pancakes. Makes 4 pancakes, serving 6 to 8.