Sometimes sitting in the middle of Dallas, one gets the feeling that they couldn’t be in a more urban setting. Sometimes, squirrels and mosquitoes seem to be the only wildlife and St. Augustine grass the only flora. But this year for the first time in, well, forever, I have an unquenchable thirst to have a vegetable garden. Spring has hit me hard. On a recent outing with a bunch of wild Brownie Scouts I had the occasion to actually do a little research on the “wildlife” at White Rock Lake, and expected to not be impressed. I was actually bowled over by the diversity of the wildlife right in the middle of Dallas…the reptiles and amphibians, the wonderful birds, the lake full of bass and catfish, and all manner of critters, too. It reminded me that urban is a mindset as much as anything and that there is wild all around if you care to open your eyes. I feel a strong need to have a little wild and a little green around me.
For several months I have been told that there is an impressive urban vegetable garden on Fitzhugh, championed and loved by one Tom Spicer. This is one of those little outings that you can really put off over and over again and find yourself 5 years later wondering where the time went. But last week, I had a spare 45 minutes and steered my ship in that direction. What I found was a rather typical East Dallas storefront, around the corner from Jimmy’s Food Store, an Italian market. Behind the entry door was a low key “store” with an industrial refrigerator and a glass front cold case and a million little curiosities. This is a place that one walks into and instantly feels like they are in on a secret, a great little known find. This is not, I think, a shop accustomed to random drop-ins from the kingdom of soccer moms. But what it is, is the source of the best greens, vegetables, and cultivated wild varieties of mushrooms in Dallas. And it is where our notable chefs turn when they need something special. You wouldn’t know it from looking in this front room, that a mere 20 steps toward the back will land you in a lush and expansive garden, laden with greens and goodies. I laid $20 dollars down, and asked for a few mushrooms and whatever else might be lying around that I might enjoy. That is a fairly accurate representation of my request. But when you are lucky enough to have a great chef in front of you, shouldn’t the request be, “Please make for me whatever you think looks great today.” Likewise, at Spiceman’s F.M. 1410, my request was, “Please just let me try whatever you think I should try today.” And, a gent named Cole truly came through for me.
When I left, I had an armful of gorgeous mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, east Texas strawberries, and some of the loveliest greens I had ever had the pleasure to behold. Most notably, in the selection of greens were curly little pea tendrils with succulent fresh leaves. They were beautiful. This is simply not something you are going to encounter in a grocery store.
But to bring me back to my original point about the wild being all around, the fiddleheads caught my attention because they are not cultivated, but foraged…much like one of the wonderful little morels that went into my bag. The fiddleheads I got last week are not from the fabled ostrich fern which is apparently the favorite of those on the east coast, but the juvenile and unfurled shoot of another edible variety of fern foraged from the Pacific Northwest. Spicer has cultivated interesting culinary relationships as well as greens, and has trusted sources for a variety of finds such as these. I had never seen them in my life, in a grocery store or on a plate, so I was not worried about the provenance, save that someone had actually taken the time to walk through a forest searching the ground for these spring beauties, just for me.
Foraging, gardening, hunting, fishing…they all hit me in the same spot. They are a nod towards self sufficiency. They are a tip of the hat to the part of the human spirit that ensures that some will be able to eat and survive even if the A&P closes down. That being said, I’d be the first idiot to die in the forest from eating a poisonous plant. But I respect it, and I feel lucky to have found a place that will enable me to try some of this, the Earth’s gift to those who know better. I’ll stick to the fishing. I’ll turn to Spicer for these fun treats. He assures me that fiddleheads from Ostrich ferns will be coming in a few weeks.
What to do with them? A quick sauté. A warm Balsamic-glazed treat on top of a bed of the beautiful greens. The goat cheese was an afterthought, but a good one. It warmed against the fiddleheads and was a nice, creamy counterpoint to the crispness of the vegetables.
What do they taste like, you ask? They taste like fiddleheads. I’ve read that they taste like asparagus with a hint of grass or artichoke but I have a hard time with those descriptions. It just is what it is, and it is worth trying because it is a gift, because it is interesting, and because life is boring if you don’t take a step or two outside the box in which you live.
“They always take my breath away. I love the combination of soft bronze and pale green and creamy sunlight against the deep chestnut color of wet bark mulch. (It hasn’t stopped raining anywhere.) One could key the palette for a living room, or bedroom, right off this garden moment; the fiddleheads look like that short-napped cut velvet the Italian looms produce so exquisitely.” –Dominique Browning, of the blog Slow Love Life, former editor-in-chief of House & Garden
Fiddleheads need to be cleaned. Rinse them several times in a bowl of cold water, dislodging any remnants of the brown papery shell that they had yet to shed in the wild. Mine required rather a lot of rinsing. Fiddleheads can, I read, cause stomach upset if eaten raw, so they need to be cooked somewhat. I parboiled them for exactly 3 minutes and then rinsed them under cold water to stop the cooking. The quick boil also helped give them another good cleaning. Also, I think most people probably use these more sparingly than I did, throwing them in with other vegetables in a sauté. But since I wanted to really get a feel for this plant, I used a big heap of them in my salad. If you manage to acquire some fiddleheads, they would certainly be wonderful with a handful of chopped this and that, as well. Red peppers, little fresh green beans, etc. I also used ramps (new to me, as well) in this sauté. I used the whites, and I also chopped up some of the greens to throw in right at the end of the sauté. They have the most delightful garlic and leek flavor, even in the greens. I hesitate to couch this as a recipe, as thrown together as it was, but here it is, an idea in all it’s glorious imprecision.
Recipe for Fiddlehead Fern Salad: (one serving)
a handful of fiddleheads
a few ramps, cleaned and divided into chunks of whites and a little pile of cut greens
a handful of fresh salad greens
a few chunks of goat cheese
salt and pepper
1. Clean and parboil the fiddleheads for three minutes. In a skillet over medium high heat, sauté the fiddleheads in a tablespoon of olive oil.
2. After one minute, add in the whites of the ramps. Continue to toss and sauté the fiddleheads for another 3 to 4 minutes. Add about 1½ tablesoons of good balsamic vinegar to the pan and let it bubble down for a moment. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and throw in the greens from the ramps and season with salt and pepper.
3. Lightly drizzle a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the salad greens. Place the hot fiddleheads in the middle of the greens and adorn the plate with crumbled goat cheese. Enjoy!
Spiceman’s F.M. 1410 is located at 1410-B North Fitzhugh Avenue in Dallas. If you are up for a little adventure, drive over and take a look at this wonderful garden. Lay a 20 on the table and ask what you need to try. If you want Spicer’s lovely fare delivered right to your door, you can visit the website for Artizone, a Dallas company that delivers local and artisanal products, making sure we all have a way to try the wares of people like Tom Spicer, even if we don’t have the time to track these goods down individually. Either way, you will want to look into Spiceman’s. This is precisely the kind of business we need to support in this city. And it is nice to have a place to show your kids, as I just showed mine, that food doesn’t come from a truck. It comes from well loved and wild ground, alike. And while his garden makes my garden look positively puny, visiting it made me even more glad that the kids and I planted one this year.
Thanks to my husband, Pitts, who took most of the photos at Spiceman’s F.M. 1410.
The balsamic I used in this recipe is called Fattoria Estense Aceto Balsamico di Modena. It is a moderately priced and excellent balsamic which I purchased at Sur la Table.