Wild Leeks

As if early spring walks or jogs in the woods are not rewarding enough, you can actually take a break from your ramblings and harvest the makings for a great dinner.
My friend Liz and I did just that a few days ago, and were rewarded with an abundance of wild leeks. Wild Leeks, also known as ramps, are the cheeky little cousin of the common cultivated leek.  When eaten raw, they have a bright peppery flavor that is often compared to a combination of scallions and garlic.  The pungent flavor mellows with cooking, making them a delicious addition to soups, eggs, rice and potato dishes.

Ramps, one of the first brilliant greens to sprout through the damp forest floor, can be found in great clusters, flourishing in sun-dappled shade.

I’m not an experienced forager but Liz is.  We headed out on one of those recent unseasonably warm days with plastic bags and small trowels in hand. As we approached a small bright patch I pulled out my trowel but Liz insisted we keep going.  This stand was too small to be responsibly harvested.  When we finally reached our destination I could see why we had waited.  We were standing in a sea of wild leeks.

The scallion-like bulbs were tenaciously rooted just beneath the surface of the leaf rich soil.  But with a little effort, making sure to dig deeply enough to thoroughly loosen the fragile bulbs, we coaxed them out of the ground.  To keep the patch sustainable, we harvested a handful and then moved five or so feet and then harvested another handful.  By constantly moving we weren’t overharvesting any one area and therefore ensuring a recurring harvest.  Ramps should only be collected when they are abundant and then only dug selectively.

When we arrived back at my kitchen, we soaked them in a basin of cold water to loosen the dirt and then ran them under more water, peeling off the slightly slimy papery wrapper and snapping off the roots.  It might seem like an awful lot of work (or money if you find them in the coop or at the farmer’s market) for a small portion of ramps but the entire plant is edible.  Unlike its over sized cousin the leek, with its tough indigestible green stalks, wild leeks have delicious edible tender leaves.

Ramps will keep in the refrigerator for about a week; store them in a plastic bag with a moist paper towel.  They are not available for long; if you find yourself with an abundance you can chop the green part off, air-dry them for a few hours and then freeze them in airtight containers.  The bulbs are best blanched first and then frozen.

Ramps, however, are best eaten when freshly picked.  I had a wealth of them so I decided to have a one woman cook-off.  I knew I could use them in any recipe calling for scallions, onions, garlic or chives, but I wanted the ramps to be the star.

My menu consisted of grilled leeks, a green salad, a savory tart and a Spanish style frittata.  To grill leeks, simply toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper and toss them on the grill.  A grill basket works well to keep the leeks from slipping into the coals.  Grill the leeks until they are tender and the greens have wilted. Serve as is or use as a garnish for mashed potatoes or over-wintered parsnips if you can get them.

For the green salad, I thinly sliced the leek bulbs and cut the green part into a chiffonade.  This I tossed with dandelion greens, arugula and escarole and dressed the whole thing with a few spritzes of lemon.  The raw leeks gave the salad an amazing flavor burst.

My search for ramp recipes revealed that many people seem to think they go particularly well with potatoes and bacon fat, but, then again, what doesn’t?  I adapted a recipe of potatoes, ramps & bacon employing the Spanish technique of making frittata.  It was really special.

Chop up 8 ounces of bacon and fry it in a 12” nonstick or well seasoned heavy skillet until crispy.  Remove bacon and set aside, leave the bacon drippings in the pan.  Very coarsely chop one pound of ramps including the green part and sauté in the bacon fat until limp.  Remove from pan and set aside.  Slice 2 pounds of potatoes 1/4 inch thick, add to skillet with some butter or olive oil if necessary to keep from sticking.  Add one cup of water, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally.  Drain excess water if necessary.  Arrange the leeks and bacon over the top of the potatoes.  Scramble 8 eggs and pour over the top.  Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until the frittata is set.  Check by inserting a knife into the center if it comes out clean, the frittata is done.  Loosen the edges and bottom of frittata and slide out onto a plate.  Cut into wedges and serve.  This is delicious hot or eaten cold for a hearty snack as the Spaniards do.  Serves 8

The hands down favorite was a delicate wild leek tart.  Line a 12 inch tart pan with unsweetened pie dough and refrigerate.  Sauté 6 cups of coarsely chopped wild leeks (use the whole thing) in 1/4 cup of butter until golden and tender.   Whisk together 4 large eggs and one and one half cups of sour cream with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper.  Spread this mixture into the chilled crust, scatter with 1/2 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese and bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 15 minutes then reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake 30 minutes more or until the crust is golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Serves 6.

Spring kicks off the foraging season, now is the time to harvest ramps, fiddleheads and those elusive morels.  To find ramps, look in moist woodlands or in the produce department of your local co-op.  If you are inspired to harvest your own, please be respectful of the stand.  Gathering wild foods is a satisfying endeavor.

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