By Candice Wagener
As it continues to warm up, we all get a little giddy to see more vibrant colors around us, even on our plates. Local chefs relish springtime, as opportunities abound to use ultra-fresh ingredients. We spoke with three area chefs about what they love featuring on their menus this time of year.
“It’s so exciting to see the first rhubarb available at the markets,” says Chef Molly Maciejewski. “It brings such a beautiful color to desserts, and a wonderful tang to savory dishes.”
While the restaurant sources rhubarb from a local farm, Maciejewski has been cultivating from her sister’s garden for personal use, and just planted rhubarb of her own this year, hoping to have her own bounty in a few years.
Maciejewski likes to use rhubarb in sweet applications such as galettes, pies, jams and sable bretons, but also favors savory applications. “It’s a great addition to braised pork. You can pickle it and add it to salsas and salads; you can use it to make a shrub for a refreshing non-alcoholic drink (or add gin for a great cocktail).”
Chef Mark Valaskey lights up when talking about spring ingredients, noting that May and June are perfect foraging months. “I am lucky enough to have permission to hunt on hundreds of acres of beautiful southern Wisconsin landscape for morels, fiddlehead ferns, wild ramps (an onion variety), wild asparagus, black raspberries and wild strawberries, among a few other things,” says Valaskey. “I would consider my specialty the elusive mushroom, though.”
With the help of team members Tom Wolowik and Ryan Dresen, Valaskey has made Bistro 101 in Mount Horeb one of the most beloved fine dining experiences in Dane County. Pre-pandemic, Valaskey hosted an annual dinner at Bistro 101 highlighting spring ingredients, which was so popular he added a second date. “So why doesn’t a restaurant guy just keep scheduling these?” asks Valaskey. “That is part of the beauty of the season … we are completely dependent on Mother Nature. Trying to time out dinner for 40 people with wild morels being the feature is a true feat in itself.”
Valaskey supplements his own haul with that of other local foragers and farmers, including Squashington Farms, located right outside of Mount Horeb. “There are only limited offerings in the spring, but everything they grow is absolutely top-notch.”
“Late spring in Wisconsin is a magical time of year for eating seasonally,” says Chef Evan Dannells, who shares an enthusiasm for foraging. He appreciates the fact that ramps, morels and fiddlehead ferns must be foraged and are only available during this very brief window of time. “Luckily, all three can reasonably be found in the same day, and we have a couple secret spots we’ll visit throughout the season,” says Dannells.
He adds that local asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries, which are delivered to the restaurant directly by local organic farmers, are in peak season. Trips to the farmers’ market to connect and supplement their supply become routine again.
Dannells preserves ramps and morels to be enjoyed throughout the year, and he sweet-pickles rhubarb to pair with local strawberries in June. “Fiddlehead ferns and asparagus, on the other hand, we like to enjoy fresh with little manipulation,” says Dannells. “Asparagus, especially, will show up at every meal, such as in an omelet with a pungent cheese or local ham, or grilled to a slight char at lunch or dinner with lemon and pine nuts.”
TRY THESE RECIPES
Find web-exclusive recipes here, from chefs Ryan Dresen and Mark Valaskey (ramp pesto and Valaskey’s grandmother’s berry pie), Molly Maciejewski (pickled rhubarb and a shrub) and Evan Dannells (foraged salad and a strawberry rhubarb granita)!