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Appetites: Ramps, watercress, sorrel and nettles usher in the taste of spring

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Spring greens
Nettles, ramps and watercress are beginning to appear on farmers market tables and wooded areas across the region.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

If you grow vegetables, you may not have most of your garden in yet, but spring is beginning to take hold across Minnesota.

And with spring comes a plethora of early vegetables at local farmers markets, which have begun to reopen for the season.

Local food writer and cookbook author Beth Dooley looks at what's out there already that could give us a sample of tasty greens, even this early in the season.   

          

Nettles

Don't believe all the worries about stinging. Nettles are easy to work with and delicious, too. Just use gloves if you're harvesting them yourself from the backyard or the woods. 

Farmers markets often sell them ready-to-use in soups, stews and stir-fries.

Fiddlehead ferns

These are a specific type of fern — also known as the ostrich fern — that grows wild in our area and is named for its resemblance to a violin head. Fiddleheads taste a little like asparagus but cook even more quickly. 

They're delicious in stir-fries and salads. Farmers markets and co-ops often carry them.

Ramps

These wild leeks are aromatic and flavorful — and so easy to find. You'll know where they are when you step on them, but they're abundant at farmers markets, too. Ramps are members of the lily family and resemble lilies of the valley. 

Use then the way you use leeks or shallots.

Sorrel

This is my all-time favorite green. It's delicious used fresh in salads, but also wonderful stir-fried lightly or wrapped around trout before grilling or baking. 

Its bright, lemony flavor is great in creamy soups and makes a fabulous pesto.

Watercress

This peppery green is fabulous in salads and even better in a pesto. It's much zippier than a basil pesto.

Watercress pesto
Cookbook author Beth Dooley suggests making pesto with watercress. The flavor, she says, is more peppery than basil pesto and is great tossed with pasta or on top of grilled salmon or steak.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Sorrel and potato soup

Serves 4 to 6

This simple soup is delicious hot or cold. There are still plenty of delicious storage potatoes in the co-ops; Yukon gold potatoes work especially well here. If you can't find sorrel in the market, substitute either spinach or watercress. 

Don't be put off by the color the sorrel will turn — a military, khaki green — its flavor stays lemony bright.

This is great served hot with croutons or chilled with diced breakfast radishes for color.

• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 small leek, white part chopped
• 3/4 pound boiling potatoes (Yukon gold or red potatoes), peeled and diced
• 1/2 pound sorrel or any dark green such as spinach, watercress or chard, thinly sliced (about 5 to 6 cups)
• 3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
• 1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
• Lemon juice, to taste
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
• Garnish: Croutons (hot soup) or thinly sliced radishes (cold soup)

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and saute the leeks until wilted, about 5 minutes. 

Stir in the potatoes and most of the sorrel, holding out about 1/2 cup for garnish. 

Stir in the stock and simmer until the potatoes are very tender. 

Working in batches, puree the soup, returning to the pot and stir in the cream. 

Season with lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste and stir in the remaining sorrel. 

Gently heat the soup over medium if serving hot, garnished with croutons. Or, if serving cold, allow to come to room temperature and then chill and garnish with thinly sliced radishes.

Watercress pesto

Makes a scant cup

This peppery pesto has a lot of character. It's great tossed with hot pasta, swirled into mayonnaise for a dip or sandwich spread, or as a topping for grilled salmon or steak. You can make this about three days ahead and hold it in the refrigerator or freeze in an airtight container.

• 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 cups packed, trimmed watercress
• 1/2 cup chopped parsley
• 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
• Salt and pepper to taste

Put the walnuts and garlic into a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. 

Add the watercress and parsley and pulse until chopped then puree in the oil in a slow steady stream.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.