Springtime in Wisconsin, and this springtime in particular, is hard-won. Every year, we grasp with white knuckles at every sign that the frost has finally lifted for good.
And like the first robin of the season, the appearance of fresh green produce on the menus of area restaurants is met with rapturous joy. Ingredients like ramps, asparagus, sunchokes and morels are the harbinger of what's to come, but the reality of growing produce in the upper Midwest can mean sparser and later crops than diners have come to expect.
Andy Watson, owner of Sprouting Acres Farm, says that the unusually cold winter was hard on his operation.
"We had two of our three hoophouses filled with salad mix, mustards, spinach and kale that did not make it through the deep cold," Watson said. "We have been lucky, if that's the right word, to have warmer early springs in the past few years that have helped us get early starts."
Watson's planting season usually starts in April, but most of the first box from his farm's CSA (community supported agriculture) comes from hoophouses. The asparagus, rhubarb and green garlic that Sprouting Acres provides to area restaurants is harvested outside.
4 & 20 Bakery and Café is one of the restaurants that buys from Sprouting Acres. Chef Evan Dannells was using ramps "as an add-on to all of our sandwiches" at the time I spoke with him, but said that the season would likely be over soon. This year's ramps were ready a full four weeks later than last year.
In upcoming weeks, Dannells will be working asparagus into the menu, and "rhubarb is all over the place in our baked goods right now." 4 & 20 is making rhubarb-raspberry muffins, rhubarb coffee cake, and "pop tarts" filled with rhubarb jam.
Bradbury's on North Hamilton Street, a coffeehouse that specializes in sweet and savory crepes, is also changing its menu rapidly to reflect the latest available fresh vegetables.
"It's really hard to project out what our menu will be," said owner Josh Makoutz, but he gamely provided the details of some dishes that will be appearing on the menu in the last week of May.
One savory crepe will feature Harmony Valley spinach and pickled ramps along with brie and prosciutto ($9). Another uses either asparagus or ramp green pesto with chicken, scrambled eggs and fresh mozzarella (also $9).
Tory Miller, chef at Graze and L'Etoile, says that true early season Wisconsin produce is foraged.
"For me," he said, "the first thing in spring is the stuff that grows wild and naturally, like ramps. Things that come out of the woods."
Miller has seen some "spring" vegetables appear on local menus that are not truly able to grow locally until the warmer weather comes. "Peas, strawberries — (in early spring), you know that they did not come from here."
He's using ramps in the pesto at Graze, in an electric-green rigatoni dish with meatballs ($18). Miller is also making a rhubarb ranch dressing in which to dip Graze's cheese curds.
On Monroe Street, Pizza Brutta's spring pizza ($10.50) is topped with asparagus, spring onion, lemon ricotta and Sarvecchio cheese for a seasonal variation on it irresistible wood-fired pies. And Grampa's Pizzeria on Williamson Street has a front-row seat to the early growing season, with its entire back yard given over to raised beds for growing produce.
"We're not harvesting a lot yet," said chef Gilbert Altschul, "but there are some radishes popping up, and mustard greens for salads."
Grampa's is featuring a starter using local sunchokes with salmon roe and radish greens ($8) and an asparagus app with eggs and coppa from the Underground Butcher (11), and its always-lovely market salad ($7) is "intended to reflect what's fresh and available at the market (like) lemon sorrel and mizuna."
But just like Wisconsin weather, seasonal produce is a moving target this time of year. Restaurants like these are constantly tweaking their menus to reflect what looks good at the markets, so be prepared for your favorite special to disappear, just like a snowflake on a balmy spring day.