Garlic by any other name is delicious
The first year I moved to Marquette I went hiking with some new friends. As we left a hilltop and moved into the still spring damp lowlands I noticed a distinct aroma. “Why does it smell like onion?” I asked. Bending down, one of the hikers wrestled with some broad green leaves scattered all around us. What he dug out was reminiscent of green onion, or a very small spring onion. That night at camp we roasted the bulbs and leaves over the fire and ate them whole-delicious.
This was my first introduction to the wild leek, or ramp. This wild perennial is part of the allium family, like the garlic and onion to which its flavor and scent are often compared. Prolific in eastern North America and Appalachia, it can also be found, though is less bountifully, in other areas of the US and Canada as well. They prefer hardwood stands and damp soil. Looking for them in places that have vernal pools is a good idea, and if you have a good spot for finding morels you should keep your eye out for ramps as they like a similar habitat.
Ramps tend to carpet large areas of forest and it can seem like they are inexhaustible. They are not of course, so it’s important to harvest responsibly. Ramps grow in bunches of 5-10 plants.
Take a few of the large ones, leaving at least one large and many of the small ones. This means that at least one well established plant and plenty of young ones can reseed to keep next year’s supply just as rich. The ramps can be tricky to get out, so bringing a trowel is helpful. Shovels are too large for the job and disrupt the plant more than necessary. Moving around the patch and not taking too many from one area will also ensure the viability of the spot. This is good for you as well as ramps-it means the patch will be there for you in years to come.
Before the modern food system, the ramp was an important early spring food that provided much needed greens and vitamins A and C, as well as iron. They were so important to the Appalachian diet that you can still find ramp festivals all over that area. While now it may not be as vital to our health after a long winter, the leek is still a nutritious and tasty harbinger of spring.
We look forward to harvesting them each year in my household. It gives us an enjoyable activity to do outside that directly contributes to our health, provides us with local food, and connects us to the natural food cycle of the Upper Peninsula.
They can be used in place of garlic and onion, chopped up fresh in salads, lightly sauted, roasted, or grilled. Both the white tube and leafy greens are edible. They work well in scrambled eggs or sauted and placed alongside a fried egg. They can mixed into soft cheeses or butters for flavored spreads, pureed in a food processor into pungent pesto for pasta or crostini, or chopped up as a pizza topping.
They are even great pickled using the same brine you would for dill pickels!
The season for ramps is coming to an end, so grab your trowel and go for a walk soon!
Editor’s note: Sarah Monte is employed by the Marquette Food Co-op.