Wild Food Wednesday: Ramps or Wild Leeks

Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the U.S. and that diversity doesn’t stop at the market! Our woods are alive with tasty and nutritious food if you know where to look. In our Wild Food Wednesdays we’ll tip you off to seasonal goodies that you can find around TC and give you a recipe or two so you can enjoy the meal as much as the hike to find it!

Whether you know them as ramps, wild leeks, spring onions or by their scientific name of Allium tricoccum, ramps are a wild onion with a delicious & pungent garlicky flavor. They are popping up in the woods right now, so we’ve put together a guide to harvesting and using these abundant harbingers of Spring and welcome your suggestions in the comments!

Handful of ramps

Handful of ramps

Wild leeks are found from as far south as Alabama all the way up into Canada. To the south, they are more commonly known as ramps while in the north, wild leek is more common. Wikipedia’s page on Allium tricoccum says that “ramps” comes from the English word ramson, a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum) that is related to our American species.

Regarding harvesting, Ramp-age at the Earthy Delights blog says:

Good ramps or wild leeks should have two or three whole bright green leaves with the small white bulb attached by a purplish stem. The leaves are generally about 6 inches long, although ramps tend to be harvested at a somewhat earlier stage than are wild leeks. Depending on where you get them, ramps or wild leeks may be still muddy from the field or all cleaned and trimmed. The key is that they be fresh. Yellowing or withering in the leaves is a sign that they have gone too long.

A papery wrapper leaf (and some dirt) may surround the bulb and should be pulled off as you would with scallions. Trim away any roots along with their little button attachment. The entire plant is now ready for eating.

Once ramps / wild leeks have been cleaned, store them in the refrigerator tightly wrapped to keep them from drying out (and to protect the rest of the contents of the fridge from the heady aroma). They should keep for a week or more, but use them as soon as possible after harvest.

Wild Leeks from Spring Hollow Farms (courtesy Cherry Capital Foods)

Wild Leeks from Spring Hollow Farms (courtesy Cherry Capital Foods)

To their tips we would add:

  • When harvesting, it’s important to take care not to break the stem and leave the bulb in the ground. You can use a knife or stick to loosen the ground next to the stem, but if you are careful and grasp from as low on the stem as you can, you will usually get the whole plant.
  • Oftentimes when the leeks aren’t too dense, you can remove the papery outer skin as you harvest, saving time later.
  • In a natural market sort of setup, ramps are often found in the same sandy, hilly locations where you would find morels. They are delicious together!
  • Wild leeks Try not to pull all of the leeks in a small area so they come back year after year.
  • DANGER! Lily of the Valley and (we’re told) Death Camus both grow in our area and look similar to wild leeks. Neither smells strongly of onions like leeks do. The main point is that if you aren’t certain about a plant, don’t put it in your mouth!

Some wild leek facts & lore:

  • Leeks were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans and were especially revered for their beneficial effect upon the throat. The Greek philosopher Aristotle credited the clear voice of the partridge to a diet of leeks, while the Roman emperor Nero supposedly ate leeks everyday to make his voice stronger. (World’s Healthiest Foods)
  • The name of Chicago originates from “Checagou” (Chick-Ah-Goo-Ah)means “wild onions” in the Potawatomi language. The area was so named because of the smell of rotting marshland and wild leeks that covered it. (Earthy Delights)
  • Wild leeks are high in Vitamins C and A, and are full of healthful minerals. And they have the same cholesterol-reducing capacity found in garlic and other members of this family. (Earthy Delights)
  • The entire plant is edible and leaves, especially when young, are delicious when sauteed.

While our very favorite wild leek recipe is to saute young leeks & morels in butter or olive oil with a little salt & pepper, if you want to get a little fancier and make a meal out of it, we can help you out. Earthy Delights is a Michigan-based purveyor of all kinds of wild & cultivated foods (including morels), and they have a number of recipes using leeks, including this one.

Editor’s Note: The photo below is a wild leek & potato soup we made without the morels in it – another delicious way to serve this!

Creamy Potato, Leek and Morel Mushroom Soup

Ingredients

Wild Leek Soup with Morels and Cornbread

Wild Leek Soup with Morels and Cornbread

3/4 pound fresh Morel mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed, and coarsely chopped
1 large leek, using everything below the green leaves
6-8 fingerling potatoes
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups water

Directions

Chop the dark green leaves and the roots off of the leek. Slice the stem lengthwise and rinse under cold water. Remove all grit that may be trapped between layers.

Peel and halve the potatoes. Add both to the soup pot with the water and boil moderately for about 20 minutes or until tender.

Heat a medium sized saucepan over medium heat and add the butter. When the butter is sizzling, add the morels and a dash of salt. Cook gently for about 15 minutes, making sure they don’t dry out. Add a splash of the wine to the morels as they cook. When the mushrooms are nearly done add the rest of the wine and turn up the flame. Continue cooking until the liquid is nearly gone. Stir in the chicken stock.

Put the drained potatoes and leeks into a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Return the potato-leek mixture to the pot. Add the cooked mushrooms and simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring now and then to avoid scorching. Add the cream and simmer for an additional 5 – 10 minutes.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve piping hot with tossed greens and crusty bread.

Here’s a nice video about harvesting wild leeks by Don King. Happy hunting!