As I’ve mentioned, spring has felt massively delayed to many Berliners this year. Maybe our expectations have been warped by global warming, but it feels like we’ve been waiting, shivering at near-zero temperatures, on the brink of spring for ages. We’ve watched reports on TV about Germany’s beloved spring crop, white asparagus, whose harvest has been delayed for more than four weeks by the cold rain. Same for my favorites, bright pink rhubarb and Bärlauch, the tender wild garlic greens that Berliners forage in city parks, which both have been nowhere to be seen… until this week!
The tide turned on Tuesday. I walked into Yuki’s café to find tea sandwiches filled with hard-boiled eggs and Bärlauch! I was so delighted that I promptly wrote a post about it on my other blog. That very evening, the television news did a whole five-minute segment on the topic Grass Will Grow Again Starting This Week! It’s not every day that urban plants get so much media coverage.
I don’t know if Bärlauch gets quite as much hype as this grass I saw on the news, or as that American foodie favorite, ramps (which is native to North America, but which I’ve never tried). So if you don’t know Bärlauch, or ramsons, it is simply a leafy member of the garlic and onion genus with a tender, gentle garlic or chive flavor, which grows wild in Europe and Asia. I find it’s not so terribly different from chives, garlic scapes or garlic chives in flavor. You could certain substitute any of these in a recipe with good results, I think.
However, to me, there’s something magical about this herb because it’s one of the first to appear in spring. It’s a relief: fresh, green and juicy, and most importantly, not a storage vegetable. I wonder if it’s just the timing, the early-bird status, that makes it taste so good? Would I turn still backflips for rhubarb — sour and stringy — if it ripened in August? What about the German mania for white asparagus, could it happen in late summer?
No matter! Whether its charm lies in the flavor, in the symbolism, or just in our sun-starved heads, Bärlauch est arrivé! Here is one way to cook it.
Barley Risotto with Bärlauch (or any seasonal herbs)
I adapted this recipe from Mark Bittman’s Barley ‘Risotto’ last night, after I spotted a bunch of Bärlauch at the LPG market in Friedrichshain. You can make it with any tender, fresh herbs available. In fact, you can also use the same instructions to make risotto with rice, as I usually do. Either way, the warmth of the dish is nice for the chill of early spring.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1-2 shallots
- 1 cup pearled barley, rinsed
- 4-6 cups broth, heated *
- 2 generous handfuls fresh herbs, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup white wine
- Parmesan cheese, butter, salt, pepper
1. In a large, heavy pot or pan, heat the olive oil at medium-high heat. Add a spoon of butter if you like. Then sauté the shallots until tender.
2. Add the barley and sauté for a couple minutes, stirring constantly. Salt and pepper lightly.
3. Pour in the wine and continue to cook, stirring, at medium high heat, until mostly evaporated. Tip: a wooden or silicone spatula is really helpful from this point forward.
4. Stir in about a cup of broth and simmer until mostly absorbed. Repeat, stirring in the broth a cup at a time, then cooking it down. This process is what makes the risotto creamy – it requires a bit of extra attention to keep the grains from sticking to the pot. Continue until the barley is creamy and just tender, but not soft, which should take around 30 minutes and use up most of your pot of broth.
5. Turn off the heat. Stir in the cheese and another spoonful of butter, then salt and pepper to taste. Finally, gently stir in half of your herbs.
6. Serve, topped generously with the remaining herbs. Enjoy!
Let me know how you like the recipe, and what spring vegetables you’ll be gathering, sourcing and cooking.
* I made a quick broth by simmering a carrot, an onion, some celery root trimmings from the freezer, and a couple dried mushrooms in a pot of water while talking on the phone to a friend.