We don’t just love to print here at Lucky Duck Press. We also love to eat. And we love to make food.
Since our move to the country, we’ve been growing and making things that we used to buy at the grocery store (bread, yogurt, sauerkraut). I guess we just like trying to do things in traditional ways. We print like it’s 1910 and we try to make food like it’s … well, just about any time after the mid-20th century. We’re not really purists about it, but we do feel that some things can be better if we take a step back in time. A giant leap backward in time is our newest endeavor — trying our hands at foraging.
Last week I was working in the office on some designs. Things were not working the way I’d wanted them to. You know those days? When things just won’t click? So I decided to take a break and take a little walk in the woods. Since it’s April in New England, I decided to also do a little foraging and look for ramps.
I have been and reading about foraging for wild edibles for a few years now, but have had limited opportunity to try it. Sure, we raced the birds for the blackberries last summer in our backyard, and spent many an hour hulling buckets of black walnuts (those we got to before the squirrels) that fell into our yard this past fall. But apart from looking at some unfurling ferns last year and thinking, “Hmmm … I wonder … ,” that’s been it.
Ramps (also known as wild leeks or wood leeks) have leaves that look lily of the valley (which are poisonous!) and a scallion-like bulb just below the ground. They are delicious, with a flavor that is a mix onions and garlic. (Be warned: As with those cousins, the flavor can be intense and lingering — not recommended for a first date).
Ramps are some of the first greens to return to the woodlands of eastern North America after winter, peeking up above the dried leaves on the forest floor in early April. They must have been a welcome sight and highly prized in hunting and foraging cultures for the vitamins they contain that were difficult to come by during the cold months. By mid-May (as the trees’ leaves open up and begin to block the sunlight) the ramp leaves wilt back and the plant expends its energy growing its bulb below ground. So, in early spring one can harvest the leaves (not too many so the plant can live and grow back) and, in early summer, harvest the bulbs.
They tend to grow in groups of several plants and can, therefore, be initially identified from a distance by the pool of deep green that they create in a dull-colored, early spring forest. Positive identification is simple; a broken leaf will have a strong garlic-y smell*.
As I walked, I scanned the ground, stopping now and then to examine a small green shoot to see if it looked ramp-ish. Having no luck and needing to get back to work, I prepared to turn around and head back. Before I did, I stood, for a while, taking in the silence and scanning the middle distance for green. It turns out that my all my reading about foraging for ramps paid off because, sure enough, I spotted a group of small plants close to the ground and somehow knew, instantly, that I’d found some! During my walk back, I found two or three other small colonies and took a few leaves and a bulb or two from each so that, by the time I got home, I had a nice handful of delicious food from the forest floor.
Ramps may be eaten raw in salads or cooked; they’re delicious when sautéed in butter or olive oil. They are also tasty in soups and stews. I ate some that afternoon in a salad but my favorite way to eat them is gently cooked in olive oil over pasta.
Here are a couple of recipes that I’ve found but haven’t made yet. If you try them, let me know what you think.
Do you forage for anything? There are a lot of edibles out there. It’s a great thing to do while enjoying the outdoors. Here’s to a happy and successful foraging season!
* Please be careful! Do not eat anything that you are not absolutely certain is safe. Read books and websites extensively before heading out — in fact, I recommend concentrating on one wild edible at a time until you can positively identify it every time you see it. Better yet, take a foraging tour or class with an expert before you head out on your own. “Wildman” Steve Brill is one expert in the greater New York City area. Try to find one of his walks near you.