Friday, April 20, 2012

Stalking the Wild Leek

Although I was a girl scout back in the day, I don’t recall ever earning a badge in foraging and tend to be a little nervous about eating food I’ve found in the wild. Nonetheless last weekend Chris and I went out in search of ramps, or wild leeks, to cook up for dinner. We had seen them in our food coop and heard that they possibly could be found about five miles from our house on a 664-acre conserved piece of land called The Waterworks Property.

The property used to be owned by the neighboring town of Vergennes and was the site of their reservoir and a local hunting and fishing club. It’s a beautiful piece of land, containing diverse geology and ecosystems, well maintained trails, a pond, and an abundance of wildlife, including an endangered Indiana Bat population. Back in 1995, however, it had become an illegal dumping ground for trash and an unregulated shooting range that made it hazardous for anyone to set foot on the property. When it came up for sale, Chris and two friends, John Elder and David Brynn, decided to try to purchase it through donations and grants, and conserve it to promote environmental education for the local community. They formed a nonprofit organization with other friends and neighbors, naming it The Watershed Center, and by 1997 had successfully purchased the property.

Aside from our own home, this particular place probably holds more family memories for me than anywhere else. Before our girls were born, Chris and I would go over to the Watershed for regular weekend walks, or skis, or general explorations. Later, we carried the girls in front packs and backpacks and pulled them on sleds; we’ve picked blackberries, had picnics, sung around bonfires, and danced around Maypoles; the girls have slid down muddy slopes, run through leaf-covered paths looking for fairies, and tried to catch tadpoles and spot owls. I remember walking on icy trails one bleak February I couldn’t see my way out of, but finally did.

Our former dog Cooper, a rambunctious golden lab mix who was a puppy all of her sixteen years, never walked past the pond without going for a swim. After she died, we sprinkled some of her ashes out at the property, in an area we call Cooper’s Grove and where our Westie Callie now loves to chase chipmunks.

Last weekend Callie came with us, but the girls were busy with other demands and attractions, as is now often the case. It’s one of my favorite times of year at the Watershed right now, when the forest floor is carpeted with wildflowers. 

I know the names of only a few, but have vowed to learn more. 

One wildflower that is easily recognizable, and edible too, is the trout lily. Its namesake mottled leaves are just as pretty as its delicate flower. 

The leaf tastes like a more bitter, stronger version of spinach; it’s palatable but something I think I’d only eat in large quantities if my survival depended on it. Tellingly, I’ve never seen trout lily leaves in local markets alongside the fiddleheads and ramps.

Fiddleheads, the stems of newborn ostrich ferns, are another popular vegetable found in the woods at this time of year. Tasting vaguely like asparagus, they’re more popular than ramps, but I’m not wild about their texture. Several years ago I accompanied a commercial forager on one of his harvesting expeditions and wrote about that enlightening experience in an article for Northern Woodlands magazine. This guy paid for his daughter's college education from the money he made foraging fiddleheads!

Ramps by far are my favorite of these wild greens. They're a delicious, garlicky, and more tender version of the larger, more robust cultivated leek. Also known as allium tricoccum, ramson, and wild garlic, ramps are harder to find than fiddleheads, adding to their allure. One of the first green vegetables to emerge after a long winter, ramps have long been celebrated by local folks and now appear as a delicacy on the menus of high end restaurants.

We didn’t have any luck finding ramps out at the Watershed, although we had fun trying. Luckily our food coop had some available that had been harvested in Starksboro, a town just north of Bristol, so I bought a batch instead.

There are lots of ways to prepare ramps. I like to brush them with olive oil and lightly grill or roast them to serve with grilled fish or meat, or tuck them into an omelet. This time, though, inspired by a recipe by Mario Batali, I felt like making a spring pasta featuring asparagus and sautéed ramps. First I drizzled the asparagus with EVOO and then sprinkled it with fresh lemon zest, herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper. I then roasted the spears, my preferred way of cooking them, until they were still firm but tender.

While the pasta water was boiling, I rinsed the ramps, trimmed off the root end, and then chopped them into two-inch pieces. 

Then I sautéed them in a little more olive oil, with herbs, salt, and pepper, until they were wilted. 

When the asparagus was finished and had cooled slightly, I cut the spears into two-inch pieces as well, and prepared some bread crumbs to use as a topping. I like whole wheat panko crumbs, so I quickly toasted them on the stove in a little more olive oil and set them aside. After draining the pasta, I added it to the pan with the ramps and gently combined them, drizzling a little fresh lemon juice and more olive oil on top (what would I do without olive oil?). Finally, I scooped out portions of pasta and ramps, topped them with some asparagus, bread crumbs, toasted pumpkin seeds that I like to always have on hand, a sprinkle of parmesan, and voila!

What wild foods have you foraged? I’ve never been brave enough to forage mushrooms, but would love to hear about your experience if you have.


  1. Sheila,

    I love the "intrigue" of stalking anything out there in the wild! We've discovered secret spots for ramps and chanterelles. I can show you where they are - in exchange for one of your delicious home-cooked meals:)

    1. I'd love to hunt for chanterelles with you, mon amie! And will gladly cook up a meal for you featuring them. When are they in season? Let's plan a date.