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Northern Michigan Recipes: Chef Martha Ryan swings into full vernal verve as she deftly plates asparagus frittatas and morel omelets for hungry patrons at Martha’s Leelanau Table on this bright April morning in Suttons Bay. Fifty pounds of verdant asparagus from the Norconk farm effuses its earthy vegetable perfume into the delicious vapor of warm rhubarb tarts being pulled from the oven. Each day’s circadian rhythm in Martha’s kitchen is tied to the transformation of seasonal ingredients as they enter through the back door: rhubarb dusted with rich spring soil or Carlson’s whitefish dappled with drops of Lake Michigan. A forager still wild-eyed from scouring the leaf litter proffers a basket of black morels and pungent ramps. Martha’s hands are the conduit from earth to plate as she pares asparagus stems, slices morels and froths farm eggs.
After months of concocting hearty braises and root vegetables, the crew at Martha’s Leelanau Table is giddy with the first green of the season. “When the first local produce shows up we just go crazy with joy,” Martha tells us, adding a splash of stock to her coveted cream of asparagus soup.
A passionate home cook and world traveler, Martha Ryan spent 20 years as food service director for Leland Public Schools, channeling seasonal Leelanau produce into her lunchroom and working as an early advocate for the local food movement. With a group of partners, Martha launched Martha’s Leelanau Table in 2008 in downtown Suttons Bay, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner informed by the seasonal flow of local fruits, vegetables and proteins and influenced by Martha’s culinary excursions in Tuscany, the Loire Valley or the Eastern Adriatic. “I see the world and eat its food and then come back here to the place that I love, my restaurant and Leelanau County,” Martha muses between test bites of pastry chef Carrie Ballou’s latest incarnation of kremna rezina, a Slovenian cream cake discovered on last fall’s alpine eating excursion.
Spring’s ecstatic infusion of fresh ingredients, both wild and cultivated, prompt a culinary catharsis for Martha and fellow chefs around the region. Throwing off the quilt of cold weather comfort food, menus are rewritten almost daily to accommodate the edible abundance. “Spring forces us to cook spontaneously,” Martha concedes. She pauses to inspect a bag of microgreens picked this morning. “We know these ingredients are coming, but we don’t know exactly when, so we’re constantly adapting. We spend all winter researching recipes and techniques and now it’s go time. Farmers and foragers come to my back door almost every day. I look at what they have, and if it’s beautiful I buy it, and it goes right on the menu.”
Nature’s immediacy and the delicate ephemeral flavors of these early season ingredients call for fresh, simple preparations for which Martha is a devoted practitioner. When faced with the question of morels just picked from some secret poplar grove, Martha’s answer is shallots, butter, stock and perhaps a splash of cream. “I prefer to cook the mushrooms in a way that really emphasizes their flavor,” she says. She likes to spoon this earthy spring rendering over slices of crostini or fresh fettuccini.
As spring asserts itself in the fields and forests of Leelanau County, Martha is furiously cooking to keep up, reviving beloved seasonal recipes and creating new ones in the wake of each rainstorm and its residual abundance. As she dunks pearly ramp bulbs in pickling brine, slices red rhubarb for cobbler or reinvents the ubiquitous green spears of baby asparagus in soups, fresh salads and airy frittatas, Martha Ryan represents the farm-to-fork religion that continually establishes Traverse City and its environs as an epicenter of the American food renaissance.