After Vermont’s notoriously cold winters, spring is always a very welcome season: the trees are popped, the flowers are out, and the air probably smells a bit like manure, but hey, it’s home.
After so many soups, stews and hearty winter vegetables during the coldest months of the year, light and fresh flavors, textures, smells and sounds — yes, sounds — are the greatest way to spark your palate. Acids, like citrus and vinegars, and bites that crunch like a blanched spring fiddlehead are perfect compliments to an evening spent with singing crickets on the deck.
I’m a little hypocritical here, because my favorite spring dish involves lamb, and I blame my friends in Ireland for that one. Donegal spring lamb is the best lamb I’ve ever tasted, but a good leg of lamb from either Vermont or Australia is a very close second, and I come to crave it this time of year. Though rich, grilled lamb can easily be brightened with some Vermont-inspired accompaniments, like a fiddlehead salad with a ramp vinaigrette — a perfect meal straight from Vermont’s perfect soil.
Fiddleheads are the young coiled shoots of the ostrich fern, and are one of the first signs of spring in April and May. When harvested young, they are lightly sweet and crunchy and are a great addition to stir fries, salads, and as pickles.
Blanch your fiddleheads in boiling water for about 10 minutes until they are a full, bright emerald green. Place the fiddleheads in ice water to keep them crisp. Once they’re good and cold, dry them with a paper towel and toss with remaining ingredients and top with your desired amount of ramp vinaigrette.
Ramps, or wild leeks, are also some of the earliest and best edibles of the year. Ramps grow scallion-sized bulbs below the soil and look like a very graceful, two-leafed sprout with a lovely crimson stem, and when snapped the inside smells of sharp garlic. Sautee them for crostini, make ramp pesto, throw them in omelettes — the mild flavor of a cooked ramp is an almost sweet garlic.
Anything Vermont maple is a true blessing. Vermont has the best maple syrup in the world, in my opinion, and I have tried Maine’s, New Hampshire’s, Massachusetts’ and Canada’s. Maple is a favorite go-to for drinks, marinades, and a replacement for any sugar added to a recipe. Using it for a glaze for anything on the grill is a good idea. The depth and richness of Vermont maple perfectly candies and compliments meats of all kinds, and pairs particularly well with stronger-flavored meats like lamb, venison and bear. I love using Grade B for its robust flavor in all things, but to each their own.
Before cooking, brine the lamb in a mixture of half a cup each of sugar and salt and five cups of cold water or more, depending on the dish you’re brining it in. You want the lamb to be completely submerged in your sweet-salt water. Leave for at least four hours, or overnight.
Rinse the lamb in clean water and pat dry. You’ll want the lamb to be as close to room temperature as possible before you grill it to get that nice, gold crust on the outside, which is one of the great effects of working the lamb with your hands — it brings the meat closer to temperature. Drizzle the lamb with olive oil on all sides and season heavily with salt and pepper.
Place the lamb fat-side-down on the cutting board and place four sprigs of rosemary in the center. Taking each side of the leg, wrap the lamb around the sprigs to form a roll, and secure with cooking twine.
Heat the grill to 300 degrees and sear each side of the lamb — about four minutes per side. Once your crust is established, bring out your maple syrup and brush all over the side that is up before flipping it onto the cool part of the grill and glazing the other side.
After 15 minutes, open quickly, glaze and flip again.
Cover and grill for about 40 minutes, depending on how thick the leg is, until the internal temperature is 120 degrees for rare and 130 for medium rare. Serve sliced alongside your fiddlehead salad and your wine or cocktail of choice.
As far as wines go, red wine is often served with lamb, but I prefer lighter wines in the spring. A dry- semi-dry rose with berry notes would bring out the sweetness of the lamb, or I’ve found a dry mead works wonderfully. I paired this meal with a dry Maple Tom Collins for a refresher after the rich lamb, with Vermont maple lemonade for the kids.
However you decide to cook them, I hope you get the opportunity to try some of the foraged edibles of Vermont. Her hills are filled with different shades of flavor and beauty in every season, whether it be oyster mushrooms in the summer or venison in the fall. Some of these treasures are unique to our region, which makes them all the more special, so savor your seasonal specialties while they’re here.
The rule of thumb is: if you don’t know it, don’t eat it.