The Fallingwater Chef at Home: A Spring Forage
I’m Tom Shuttlesworth, the chef at Fallingwater for the last 14 years and a cook and chef for over more than 30. Like many reading this, I too am sequestered at home now, waiting and watching the changing world in response to the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. This is very serious business and I hope that everyone is keeping safe, keeping social distance and holding strong.
On the positive side, as a rarity for most working chefs, I've enjoyed having the time to think about, plan and cook all the meals for my wife and myself. I thought I might take this opportunity to share some recipes and menu ideas from my home kitchen in what will become a somewhat meandering series of articles that touch on food I'm lucky enough to forage, meals I create from my personal pantry and classic recipes from the Fallingwater Cookbook that the Kaufmanns themselves enjoyed.
This is the first of a few recipes I'll share with you. I hope you'll enjoy making these dishes and reading my experiences cooking at home.
Ramping up during my hike
On March 27, sparked by the overwhelming need for fresh air, exercise and different scenery, I headed into the Laurel Highlands looking for a quiet spot to get in a few miles of hiking. As is often the case, with legs stretched and trail slowly disappearing behind me, I began to sift through the recipes and ideas I'd already queued up in my mind. Cresting a rather steep forested hill, I paused and glanced down over the mountainside . . . and saw a brilliant green swath of spring and happiness: a large patch of ramps, sprouted and growing strong.
Back before interstates criss-crossed the Appalachians and fresh goods flowed in from far and wide, the mountains in winter were a harsher, harder place to call home. Long cold winters, isolation from everyone but the closest neighbors and, most importantly in this context, surviving on whatever supplies one had from the previous harvest and butchering. This is not to say that folks ate poorly – and there is a wealth of information about local ingredients, preservation methods and recipes from colonial times through the mid-20th century – but come late winter and early spring, what everyone really wanted was fresh ingredients.
Now as then, one of the very first spring plants, edible or not, to appear in Southwestern Pennsylvania are ramps (Allium tricoccum), also known as wild onions, wild garlic or spring onions. The ramps I stumbled across were remarkably well advanced due to our mild winter, but still very young, small and more subtle in flavor than they will be when the greens extend to their full six to nine inches; then, the bulbs grow larger and the flavor becomes much more aggressive and "garlicky." Usually, I wouldn’t be picking ramps until mid-April, so this find was fortuitous, indicating a delicious spring dinner ahead and that I'll want to harvest earlier than usual.
Foraging carefully and responsibly
Please be careful when you forage anything in the woods. If you are not 100% sure of what you have, in no case should you attempt to eat it. If you do find ramps, note the cluster of leaves and that each leaf indicates an individual bulb.
It’s important to note that ramp patches take a long time to form and grow to maturity. Dig under the roots and remove no more than half the cluster of ramps, then replant those that remain.
This is the only way to responsibly enjoy the ramps, while allowing that cluster to live to maturity and both grow again next year and go to seed to help the entire ramp colony. Clearcutting ramps patches will mean those ramps are gone from that area, potentially forever. Please forage responsibly. In a normal year, ramps should be available at farmer's markets, co-ops and stores that offer local, seasonal ingredients.
Pasta Carbonara con Ramps
When I have an ingredient that is very special to me – hyper-fresh, local or seasonal (or in this case all of the above!) – I like a very simple dish that highlights and elevates that ingredient. For tonight's dinner, I used this first clutch of ramps as a variation on the classic Roman dish carbonara, a pasta made with eggs, hard cheese, cured pork and black pepper. To me this is a perfect mash up: ramps and many other spring or hardy, foraged greens were often cooked in rendered fat, so adding ramps cooked in the fat from the cured pork of the carbonara to this dish, I think, elevates both.
- 1 lb pasta, dry, such as casarecce - One can use just about any pasta for this dish, but for this dish I prefer one with texture or shape that allows it to collect the sauce and flavor.
- 6 oz ramps - Clean ramps thoroughly, remove roots, then slice the whites thinly and the greens a bit more coarsely, keeping them separate. I kept the amount relatively low to reserve some for another dish, but by all means make it as ramp'ed as you like!
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 whole eggs
- 4 oz cured pork - This is a matter of taste. Classic Roman would be guanciale or pancetta, but I like smoked and cured pork belly for a locally correct approach.
- 2 oz hard cheese, finely grated - Parmesan, Pecorino or any hard, aged cheese works great. I use a micro-plane for grating.
- 2 Tb extra virgin olive oil - Though vegetable oil or rendered fat works as well, too.
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Heat 6 qts. water in a large pot over high heat. When the water beings to steam add 3 Tb salt and bring to a boil.
- While you wait on the water, cut your selected cured pork into lardons, or sticks of approximately 1"x1/4". Grate most of the cheese, retaining a small amount for plating.
- Whisk together eggs and yolks until no streaks remain, then mix in grated cheese with a few cranks of black pepper and set aside.
- Using a large, Dutch oven-style heavy pot, preheat pan to medium. Add the 2 Tb oil, then add cured pork, stirring occasionally. Cook 7-10 minutes or until crisp and lightly browned along the edges.
- Remove Dutch oven from the burner; remove the pork with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Immediately after removing the pork, add the chopped ramp whites, sautéing until tender, 5-7 minutes. Add the greens and keep stirring until the greens have cooked and turned dark green. Remove with a slotted spoon, pressing lightly to remove excess fat. Pour remaining fat into a heatproof dish or measuring cup, then add 3 Tb fat back into the pot. You can discard any remaining fat or save for your next cooking project.
- Cook 1 lb. pasta in the boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally for about 1.5-2 minutes LESS than the package instructions. Just before the pasta is finished remove 1 and 3/4 cups of the cooking liquid with a heat-proof or Pyrex measuring cup.
- Add 1 cup of the reserved pasta liquid to the Dutch oven, then bring back to a boil over medium-high heat. Drain the pasta in a colander, then transfer to the Dutch oven.
- Cook pasta, stirring constantly and vigorously, until the pasta is al dente and water is reduced by half, approximately two minutes, then remove pot from heat.
- Whisk 1/4 cup of the remaining pasta liquid into the egg and cheese mixture, then slowly stream into the Dutch oven, stirring constantly until the cheese is melted and the eggs have cooked and thickened to a glossy sauce. Season with salt if needed. The final sauce consistency should be that of heavy cream. You can thin the sauce to this consistency with remaining pasta water, but do so in small or tablespoon increments, so that it doesn’t become too thin!
- Mix in the cooked pork, then divide among bowls, top with pepper and the last of your grated cheese.
This should make 6-8 hearty servings. If you desire less, this dish works perfectly when halved.
Recommended wine pairing
If you like to pair wine with your food, I recommend a light and crisp, un-oaked white like a nice Pinot Grigio or even a young Riesling or perhaps a young, light-bodied red by way of Beaujolais or light Pinot Noir.
Enjoy and stay safe!