In Search of the Wild Leek
Words by Ashley Herrin
Photos by Linnaea Meyer
Every spring, New England’s foragers and culinary adventurers head to the woods in search of the garlicky-scented wild leek – or ramp. The smooth, pointed green leaves begin to dot the landscape shortly after winter’s snowmelt. Their purple or burgundy tinted lower stems pop up in clusters along the wood’s floor, supported by strongly-rooted white bulbs that are bursting with a hybrid onion and garlic flavor. Though tiny in size, they are powerful in flavor, making them the ideal ingredient add-on for any seasonally relevant dish here in New England.
When searching for wild leeks, remember; take what you need and use what you take. With wild edibles, especially leeks, in such high-demand in restaurants and dinner tables throughout the region, it’s important to practice moderation – and regeneration. Now, a few tips to help you during your next leek search…
Step 1: Find & Identify
Most notably, wild leeks grow in large clusters in hardwood forests. Search for areas where deciduous trees are aplenty – such as ash, sugar maple, yellow birch, beech and the like —and you’ll be sure to find the elusive ramp. You will often stumble upon islands of green as groups of leeks have sprouted through the newly awoken earth and last autumn’s fallen leaf bed. Their leaves are dagger-shaped and solid green while the stem is red and white connecting to a white bulb. Found a plant that might fit the description? Simply tear of a part of the leaf – if it has a strong garlic/onion smell, you’ve found leeks!
Step 2: Harvesting
Once you’ve identified the leeks, get digging. To remove a leek without breaking the bulb from the stem, insert a trowel a few inches away from the stem and begin to pry upwards. This usually loosens the full leek from the soil so you can simply pull it away. Digging too close to the leek will likely cut the bulb from the stem as leeks grow into the ground at a bit of an angle. When digging leeks, it’s crucial to only dig a handful of them from each cluster to ensure regeneration. It’s also important to note that leeks are potent when cooked — a little will go a long way in the kitchen, so please only dig what you need.
Step 3: Cleaning
Remove the papery skin from the stem, leaving behind the full leaf, stem and bulb. Rinse with cold water, removing all the dirt from the plant. Using a knife, remove the roots from the bulb. Use them immediately in your next meal, or store in the refrigerator by bundling together to help retain moisture and flavor.
Step 4: Cooking
There are a tremendous amount of options when it comes to preparing leeks. They can be sautéed, grilled, pickled, roasted… really, whatever you can cook up! One basic tip from the kitchen; whenever you use garlic or onions in a recipe, you can substitute with leeks. Just keep in mind they are a bit more potent than their counterparts, so it’s best to reduce the quantity of leeks when making any substitutions. Happy cooking!