Long Island’s chefs are ramping up.
Early spring brings a harvest of the foraged greens, a wild relative in the onion family, and a flavor-packed, edible announcement of what’s to come.
“Spring is probably my favorite time of year,” said Steve Gallagher, owner-chef of The Trattoria in St. James. “All of a sudden, you get ramps, asparagus, peas, and things are alive again.
“I saw spring onions are coming in, and we’ll have them on the menu in the next week or so. Grilled spring onions” with fish or meat. Gallagher is planning on asparagus risotto and pasta with asparagus, too. The ripening of apricots may mean a crostata will appear among The Trattoria desserts. “We’d been doing an apple and polenta crisp,” he said.
Exit that, along with bracing casseroles and the heavy-duty stews, and a lot more. In Italy, France and increasingly in the United States, you frequently can tell the season by looking at a menu instead of a calendar. Locally, the chefs of spring are contributing to that.
“We only serve asparagus when it’s local,” said chef-owner Eric Lomando of Orto in Miller Place. “It’s a totally different thing when it’s fresh out of the ground.” And very welcome, Lomando said. “It’s the time of the year when you’re kind of exhausted with cabbage, cauliflower and squashes.”
He’s anticipating spring-pea ravioli with ramps and smoked salmon; and combining fava beans and asparagus for “our version of pasta primavera.”
Doug Gulija, chef-owner of The Plaza Café in Southampton, said spring means a “90 percent menu change.” Gulija is looking forward to preparing a lobster and morel ragout, a morel flan, and farfalle pasta with asparagus, prosciutto and ramp pesto.
Michael Rozzi, executive chef of The 1770 House in East Hampton, is readying ramp-and-nettles pesto. “Over ricotta ravioli. With Parmesan cheese and maybe hazelnuts, extra-virgin olive oil, roasted garlic — for a really light, foresty green flavor . . . I equate spring with bright, green flavors.” One of the restaurant’s most popular additions is a sweet, spring pea soup with coppa, a cured meat, from Virginia.
In addition to ramps and nettles, Rozzi is looking ahead to those morels, the prized mushrooms with ridges that suggest honeycombs. He expects these from Washington state. “They can be used in so many ways . . . to push dishes along. Veal and morels. And morels and asparagus pair like bacon and eggs or peas and carrots.”
At Gatsby’s Landing in Roslyn, chef Juan X. Pareja expects to serve gnocchi with morels, and other pastas with leeks and morels. Peas and fava beans from California are likely ingredients for pasta dishes, too, he said. Ramp pesto would complement gnocchetti.
“But you never know how the season is going to turn out,” Pareja noted, citing weather conditions in growing areas across the country. Pareja’s spring dishes may include sunchokes, fava beans and shaved asparagus and carrots in salads, accenting the asparagus with a soubise sauce — a béchamel with caramelized onions.
Spring also is the season of curly, savory fiddlehead ferns, artichokes, arugula, avocados, beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, fennel, scallions, leeks, sweet Vidalia onions, rhubarb, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, green garlic shoots and garlic scapes. And, from the herb garden, chives, sorrel and dill make their tangy entrance.
The palette of fruits starts taking on more colorful hues, with apricots, cherries, kiwis, litchis, limes, honeydew melon, jackfruit, mango, pineapple.
“The youth of spring translates into the food,” said Jonathan Contes, co-owner and co-chef of Mosaic in St. James. “Peas, string beans, fava beans, watercress, ramps spring up and are the telltale signs of a good summer, too.”
Citing those ramps, which also are known as ramson, wood leek and wild garlic, Contes noted that cooks “have a short window” for the fresh product, perhaps three weeks. “Then, we usually do something with the leaves,” he said. “We might candy them or pickle them . . . Then we can have ramps till June.” And a puree of ramps may be frozen. “It’s kind of like what has been done with basil; put the puree in an ice cube tray” and freeze for future use.
At Café Testarossa in Syosset, chef-owner Billy Sansone said he’ll be sautéing ramps with English peas and fava beans with garlic in olive oil, adding sweet Corbari tomatoes, and serving the ingredients with pasta. “It’s just a great time of the year.”
Seafood selections differ each season, too. “Halibut will be coming in,” Sansone said. “I’ll prepare it pan-seared with a lemon zest-and-bread-crumb crust.” Chef Pareja at Gatsby’s Landing may use walu, a white, buttery Hawaiian fish, finished with olive oil, lemon zest and either oregano or marjoram, and grilled.
In addition to halibut, fluke, cod, tilefish, weakfish, whiting, black sea bass, snapper, hard-shelled clams and squid are part of the spring catch. Chef Gulija of The Plaza Café, primarily a seafood restaurant, expects to prepare black sea bass with a “springtime risotto” of fiddleheads, peas, asparagus, or morels. But he’s also sure to serve a rack of spring lamb, maybe pairing it with morels, “which last a little bit longer . . . to the beginning of summer.”
Said chef Rozzi of The 1770 House: “This is just an exciting time of year.”