Stalking the wild leeks of spring
Photo: dano272Early-spring walks in the woods are rewarding on their own. But while you enjoy those first few sunny days after a nourishing spring rain, why not look for things that can feed your belly as well as your soul? The woodlands here in the upper Midwest are teeming with gourmet goodies in the spring, and this abundance is there for the taking–if you just know where to look.
Gathering wild foods is probably the most sustainable, and certainly the most ancient way to provide delicious and nourishing local food for your family. It dates back to before the dawn of our species, and continues to this day (how’s that for sustainable?). Archeologists have uncovered the remains of a 6000 year old man, and in the pouch found with him were several mushrooms. The arrow in his back may have indicated that he was foraging in someone else’s territory. Such severe penalties are less likely today, but it’s still a good idea to make sure you have the landowner’s permission.
Today our innate instinct to gather has been redirected toward grocery stores and shopping malls — yet the the hunter-gatherer within remains with us, just as surely as it didwith the “Mushroom Man.” Sadly, the tools and tricks our ancestors used to find wild edibles have been replaced by knowing which coupons to clip and which grocery has the best deal on frozen pizza. It need not be so, and learning a little bit about the Heartland’s easiest-to-find spring delicacies is the best place to start.
The first to sprout through the damp forest floor is likely to be ramps. Otherwise known as wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), these relatives of onions, garlic and shallots inspire weekend-long festivals in the Appalachians, where their flavor is much stronger — some might say overwhelming. Hear in the Midwest they are milder — much easier to appreciate — and prolific. Those of you in the Chicago area can enjoy them this weekend at The Land Connection’s 5th annual RampFest.
They can be picked in April, when they have two or three long, flat leaves; or sometimes they are left until summer and then only the bulbs are used. To find them, look for moist and swampy woodlands favoring those plants that take advantage of the sunlight that penetrates to the forest floor before the trees leaf out. Look for their long, slender leaves and somewhat red stems in clumps around the bases of oak trees.
They can be eaten fresh, pickled, sautéed or grilled, and a fine julienne of the young leaves makes an excellent salad garnish.
Here’s a simple way to enjoy them as a snack, appetizer of side dish:
12 ramps (or about 1/2 pound)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste.
Clean the ramps by trimming away the root end right at the base, and also by trimming any wilted leaves away.
Toss with the oil, parsley, salt and pepper, then grill very quickly over high heat until slightly charred and tender. A grill basket is sometimes helpful to keep the ramps from falling through the grate.
Serve immediately with your favorite dip, such as aioli or ranch dressing.