Michigan Spring on a Plate:

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Pan-Seared Walleye, Trout & Whitefish over Ramp and Asparagus Puree, Roasted Morels and Oyster Mushrooms and a Salad of Ramp Ribbons, French Breakfast Radishes & Tops

GRAND TRAVERSE, MI — As I was frolicking up in the gloriously florid Grand Traverse area a few weeks ago, cherry flowers were popcorning open about 10 days behind schedule. That’s why it was almost exclusively Pacific Northwest cherries on offer here at the week-long National Cherry Festival, which ended yesterday.

Michigan had a very cool spring – on average two degrees cooler than normal, so cherry blossoms got a late start, as did perhaps the most eagerly awaited of all wild foods: morel mushrooms.

Unlike organisms whose life cycles are driven by daylight, both cherry flowers and morels hold back on reproducing until they get enough warmth and moisture.

In 2019, only the warmth was in limited supply. As in most of the Midwest, it was a waterlogged spring in Michigan, delaying corn and soybean planting and threatening yields, as The Detroit Free Press reported, predicting climate-change-driven more of the same, “Michigan’s climate: Models project 30% increase in rain and snow, plus rising temps.”

Researchers believe that in addition to causing rising seas, the additional water from melting glaciers will lead to more, and more severe rain events in the Great Lakes area in the spring.

A Cherry Blossom Delay

I am researching Michigan’s sour cherry industry for a freelance magazine story, so taking pictures of cherry blossoms was on my spring Michigan agenda. Things went smoothly the first week as I interviewed plant breeder Amy Iezzoni, the mother of the Michigan cherry industry and Michigan State University’s 2019 Innovator of the Year. Near Clarksville, MI, most of the trees were in full bloom.

Pollinating “emasculated branches” in late May in central Michigan with Michigan State University Professor Amy Iezzoni.

But 150 miles to the north, the Sutton’s Bay cherry farmer I was scheduled to visit, Don Gregory, texted to say if I wanted trees full of puffy white blossoms I’d better wait another week before coming.

I have to say I am glad I went back to Chicago and made a second trip the following week! This is the view of Don Gregory’s cherry orchard from the beautiful hilltop campsite he graciously let me use, (alongside my amateur efforts to paint it in watercolors.)

While in Michigan I was amazed; at times overwhelmed by the natural beauty. I took lots of photo and video and am working on multi-media essays so I can ‘bring you along with me,’ called Michigan Looking Down, Michigan Looking Up and Michigan Looking Out.

My interviews and wanderings brought me in touch with James Dake, Director of Education at Grass River Natural Area and the photographer and author of The Grass River Natural Area’s Field Guide to Northwest Michigan. He took me hunting for morels and ramps, the latter rather more successfully, since they ended up on my plate.

We met up in beautiful Bellaire, MI, which just so happened to be having its weekly blowout sale in benefit of the local senior center — think part farmer’s market, part high-quality swap meet. I would recommend it to anyone looking for fresh local ingredients, fishing poles and all those beautiful linens and dishes nobody knows what to do with when a matriarch passes to the great beyond. That’s where I got a lot of the other ingredients for my Michigan meal, including organic French breakfast radishes, which are cylindrical and pink and white, and a basket of tri-colored oyster mushrooms from Daybreak Dreamfarms to add some volume to the one morel I managed to find.

  • farmer's market
  • farmer's market
  • farmer's market

From Dan’s Fresh Fish I landed three species – one each for the three nearby Great Lakes, Michigan, Huron and Superior. Before I cooked the fishes I had to look up their skin patterns on the internet to identify which was whitefish and which was walleye. The pinky-orange one I already knew was the lake trout.

Whitefish, walleye and trout
Walleye, whitefish ad trout.
farmer's market
Top to bottom: Whitefish, walleye and trout.
pickled ramps

There isn’t so much a recipe here as me just simply cleaning and preparing the ingredients to highlight their natural flavors. I quick-pickled those ramps that had bulbs intact, along with some of the breakfast radishes, and put both their leaves in the salad.

The one “recipe” I made used the remaining ramp leaves to make a pesto, loosely based on a recipe I found from Chef Daniel Kelly that combined ramps and blanched English peas into a puree. (His recipe is part of a four-component dish that also features a vibrant “beet paint,” on the plate so it’s worth taking a look.)

I had nowhere near the 2.66 kilograms (5.86 pounds) of ramps called for in that recipe, so I just sussed out the ratio, which was 2660 grams of ramps to 200 grams of peas (which I changed to asparagus). So roughly a 13-1 ratio of ramp to not-ramp, and whatever the weight of the not-ramp vegetable, add the same weight in parsley. Easy peasy. I weighed my ramps and calculated that the two asparagus spears I had from a last-minute roadside stand stop were the eerily perfect volume. I had to cook the asparagus longer in the blanching liquid than I normally would. I relied on the spring-tender asparagus to be puree-friendly with none of the woodiness of later-season asparagus and it didn’t let me down.

A quick blanch, and I do mean quick.

Both vegetables were shocked in ice water, drained, and blitzed in the food processor, adding room-temperature pats of butter, salt and, for me, ground black pepper to taste. The original called for white pepper, but I didn’t have any, (probably because it smells to me like feet.)

The puree made, I turned my attention to the fishes — figuring out which fish was which was job one, since Ken’s Fresh Fish had none of the grocery store’s propensity to overly package or label.

farmer's market
Top to bottom: whitefish walleye and trout

We had five for dinner, and ended up with a few leftovers. I cut each fillet into small pieces so everyone could try a bit of each.

I am not going to dwell on the fact that I tossed those beautiful oyster mushrooms and my one prize morel in olive oil salt and pepper, popped them in a hot oven and didn’t set a timer. They didn’t get black, but they were a deep roast to a crisp. I still ate them, but it was not my finest hour in the kitchen. Most everything else went right, though. I could feel the antioxidants coursing through me as I ate this super healthy salad of radishes, radish tops and ribbons of ramps:

  • Michigan Spring on a Plate

If you enjoyed this blog, please share it and subscribe. Lost of exciting food travel in the works!

Coming Up:

A recipe and assembly video for Blubarb-Lemon Curd Trifle from the Fourth of July at the home of Steve Yepez and Mark Reese.

Next week I head into the Michigan woods with a state-certified forager and a chef, Sierra Bigham of Bear Earth Herbals will lead our foodie band’s recon in the woods and Chef (and fellow forager) Randy Minish has graciously agreed to cook whatever we find at his upscale locavorious restaurant, Terrain!

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