harâ€¢binâ€¢ger (hÃ¤rÌ bin jÉ™r) n 1. One that announces or foreshadows the approach of someone or something; a forerunner; herald. 2. A person sent in advance of troops, a royal train, etc., to provide or secure lodgings and other accommodations.
Or so says our Webster’s College Dictionary when we look up the word “harbinge”—which actually doesn’t exist. Apparently, the announcer is a real thing but the announcement is not, which is just the sort of fickleness that we expect from the English language. After all, we’ve all seen sturdy, brand-new buildings, but we have never viewed a crepit one. No—according to Webster’s, we have not.
The reason we needed the verb form is that these heralds, these forerunners, are all in action right now, harbinging their little hearts out. They’re saying that spring has hit the snooze bar twice, it’s wiping the sleep from its eyes and it’s pouring its first cup of coffee. Pretty soon it’ll be in the shower, and then it’ll be hard on the job. It’s coming, these harbingers are saying, so you better get ready.
While onion grass, crocuses and daffodils are national harbingers of spring, these are of no interest to EATER. That’s because we in Westchester have a precious heritage: our local harbingers are delicacies. That’s right, we mean fancy edibles that cost extra in restaurants. And here’s what’s even better about living where we do—we don’t need purveyors, distributors or fancy upstate growers to get on hands on these treats. Our particular harbingers, these local vernal delicacies, can be found in Westchester woods or right in the Hudson River. We don’t know about you, but that makes us proud to be hunters and gatherers.
Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a member of the Allium family, and are close relative to onion grass, chives, leeks and scallions. In fact, they look a lot like scallions, but have flat, maroon-veined leaves instead of the scallion’s hollow green stalks. Tasting like a garlic-tinged, very intense leek, ramps grow wild from Canada to North Carolina and can be found right here in Westchester. Local chefs employ independent foragers who scour local wooded areas to gather wild ramps in spring. If you’re lucky, you’ll find them on locavorian menus around the county.
In a story that smacks a bit of “the leatherman,” ramps were once brought to Crabtree’s Kittle House by a woman known only as “The Ramp Lady.” While that mythic woodswoman has retired, she’s been replaced by Eileen Zidi, a professional forager who supplies local restaurants, including Crabtree’s, with locally foraged ramps.
Shad is one of our more poetic harbingers, because the “runs” (as the mass, up-river spawning swims of these anadromous fish are called) follow the blooms of three flowers, forsythia, dogwood and lilac. That means there’s no need to check charts to learn when shad is in season: when the yellow buds of the forsythia bloom, shad is running in the Hudson.
While the fish’s flesh is not particularly popular (it’s both bony and oily—a tough sell with modern diners), shad’s roe has been prized forever. It’s New York caviar, and nearly as expensive and tough to come by. Shad roe’s increasing rarity on menus can be explained by its declining fan base: gritty, salty and fishy, shad roe is definitely an acquired taste. “I personally despise it — the flavor, the texture, everything. I can’t stand it,” says Brian Galvin of Ocean House, one of Westchester’s best-rated fish restaurants located right on the Hudson. “I have one or two customers who I’ll get it for specially, but they have to order it ahead. I do it every year for them, but shad roe isn’t on my menu.” And the fish? “Forget it—my guys refuse to even handle it, it’s so bony and tough to filet. Plus, no one orders it anyway.” For those few special customers, he serves shad roe prepared like liver: sautÃ©ed in bacon fat and topped with crisped bacon. (And let’s face it—my shoe would be delicious prepared like that.) PS: To read more about shad roe, check out April’s issue of Westchester Magazine, Amuse Bouche.
In an email, Chef Peter X. Kelly of X2O agreed with Galvin about shad’s dwindling appeal. ”As for shad and its roe, it is a shame that itâ€˜s a declining delicacy with today’s dining public. When I opened my Garrison Xaviars in 1983, springtime meant shad roe season even more than soft shell crab season. In those days my guests clamored for primarily the roe, as shad, the fish, tends to have an oily quality that some people find off-putting. We always served it just hours out of the water because the river narrows between Garrison and West Point and it was always one of the premier spots for catching shad.
“These days the call for shad & its roe is much less but we still offer it on our specials menu. Currently we’re preparing shad roe wrapped in thin sheets of zucchini then pan roasted, drizzled with balsamic brown butter and garnished with crisp prosciutto.
“For a number of years I and the late chef Joe Hyde (a remarkable guy) cooked for the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association’s annual Shad Festival which took place in Garrison and attracted thousands of people every year to sample the Hudson River shad & roe.”
It’s a sad state of affairs for this local delicacy. Shad festivals, once a source of local pride, are disappearing. Shad’s declining market, fish populations affected by pollution, and fewer shad fishermen (whose nets are increasingly clogged with illegal-to-sell, PCB-contaminated stripers) mean that the roe is becoming a menu oddity. To us, that makes this delicacy even more precious: there’s a real sense of get-it-while-you-can with this local harbinger.
Looking a little Hobbit-y (or like something in the Garden Gnomes aisle at Lowes), morels are to the Hudson Valley what truffles are to the Perigord. In fact, morels belong to the same fungus species as truffles, and like truffles, morels are expensive and highly prized for their intense, earthy flavor. They’re often paired with fancy game birds like pheasant and served in lush, creamy sauces that support the morel’s heady flavor—like truffles, morels are swank. Unlike truffles, however, morels can be locally foraged right here in our neighborhoods.
Jonathan Pratt of Peter Pratt’s Inn is an avid morel hound, who is lucky enough to live close to his quarry. Unlike Chef Kelly, who hunts his huge morels somewhere in Rockland county, Chef Pratt need only to poke around his Yorktown backyard. Each spring he emerges with enough of the pricy harbinger to offer an annual morel dinner to his most loyal customers and friends. We think that’s a little risky: he’s inviting flashlight raids on his backyard each time he shares his loot.