Early Spring: Wild Leeks (and Recipe Roundup)

Foraging is something I’ve said that I want to do more of this year. I keep waiting and waiting, but it’s still early spring. Even a week ago we had enough snow to cover the ground.

The forest is just starting to wake up for spring. And, in this case, waking up seems to be more like the prolonged lingering one does on a weekend morning when you really don’t want to get out of bed. The earth is sleeping in, and won’t wake up and get going until it has to.

This makes me extra grateful for leeks (aka ramps, aka Allium tricoccum). The leeks started to emerge a few weeks ago, just after the silver maple began to bud out and the geese started to come back. Now the leeks have grown to their full height and are found in large patches in the woods near our property.

Oodles of leeks in the woods.

I’ve been going out to collect leeks in the woods. I don’t collect the ones nearest to us; instead, I make sure to go a little farther into the woods and find areas where they are especially dense.

Often I’ll just use a scissors to cut of the green leaves, removing a handful here and there to thin out the patches. I figure that this only temporarily sets back the plants and doesn’t disturb the soil. Most the time the leaves are enough anyway, adding just a bit of onion-garlic taste to a dish.

One day I went out with a digging fork to dig up entire plants, and I suspect that I’ll do this more in later spring as the leaves start to decline and the bulbs grow. The digging fork is preferable to a shovel, as it helps lift and break apart the soil so that it is easier to grab individual plants without breaking them. Just like when I cut the tops off, I only disturb a small number of plants in any one place. I dig up a forkful on one location and then move several feet away to a new place to minimize disturbance on the site.

Digging leeks with a fork.

There are still seeds on many of the leek plants left over from last year. I’ve been gathering some of these and placing them in the hole as I replace the disturbed soil. If the seeds are still viable, hopefully they’ll grow new plants for next year. When I cut the roots off of the plants to cook them, I dig a hole in the right type of soil and bury them close to the cottage, hoping some of those might manage to grow into new plants as well. And perhaps I’ll gather some seeds and plant those as well.

Seeds on a leek plant.

Cooking with Leeks

I’m still gathering and playing with recipes for leeks, but here are a few that have caught my eye and my imagination:

Wild & Wonderful Ramp Chowder (via Health Starts in the Kitchen) — I made this simple chowder for dinner and it worked really well. Not being one to ever follow a recipe as written, I only used about half the cream and cheese that the recipe called for and instead cooked about a quarter of a cauliflower and creamed it with an immersion blender to get the thick, creamy consistency.

Ramp Pesto (via Hunter Angler Gardener Cook) — To be honest, I didn’t follow this recipe too closely at all, and I borrowed a lot of ideas from this simpler one that omits the fancy cheese and uses sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts. In this case, the recipe mash-up was important because the first one described the importance of blanching the leek leaves in order to keep the pesto from turning that yucky brown color. The result from the recipe mash-up was amazing.

Here are a few others on my to-make list:

 

Foraging… no… Superfood Hunting

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and the Rich Roll podcast is one that always has inspiring guests discussion interesting ideas at the intersection of health, performance, and spirituality. Given that my two most recent posts have been about foraging (here and here), I was really happy to see that Rich Roll interviewed superfood hunter Darin Olien.

I really can’t describe Darin’s expertise sufficiently well, except to say that he’s the “Indiana Jones of Superfoods” and goes around the world to find medicinal plants and bring them to market. It’s super-interesting stuff and you can get it all from the podcast:

Here are a few takeaways that I got out of it. If you have more to add, let me know!

1) Many wild plants (and mushrooms) contain incredible compounds for nutrition and medicine. As soon as you harvest the plant, however, these materials begin to degrade—this makes it so important to get fresh or quality ingredients, and be wary of things in packages.

2) Eating well is tough, but it’s absolutely essential. Start small rather than trying to change everything at once. Darin suggests starting out by drinking more water (good water, not sketchy “processed” water) and eating a giant pile of vegetables for one meal a day. Start there, and add more later. That sounds do-able, so I’ll try that.

3) Calling oneself a “superfood hunter” is a whole lot sexier than being a “forager” although I’m not entirely sure what the difference is. Perhaps if I’m on the fence and not feeling up to going out to look for wild plants, I can reframe it as superfood hunting, put on some khaki, and head out to the woods.

Winter Foraging: Chaga

It was only a matter of time before I tried chaga. After all, my friends had offered it to me several times and raved about how good it is. It was a gentle, adult form of peer pressure where the primary benefit was not being cool or getting a thrill like it was during the teenage years; nowadays it’s about participating in the latest health trend, like chia seeds or Cross-fit. Among my friends, chaga is where kombucha was three years ago.

Chaga, if you haven’t been introduced to it yet, is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) that parasitizes birch trees in northern forests. The fungus enters the tree stem through a would or old branch stuff and sends fungal threads into the tree in order to access the tree sap. Meanwhile, the fungus produces a crusty, browish-black growth (the chaga) on the outside of the tree stem. In forestry school, I first learned of this fungus as “bear shit on a birch tree” because of its ugly appearance.

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Chaga on a snowy yellow birch.

But over the last few years, its been reintroduced to me as a dark, tea-like drink made from this funky mushroom. Chaga is a folk medicine used by native peoples across the northern hemisphere to treat a wide variety of ailments, including stomach disorders and cancer, although the scientific evidence is still incomplete due in part to a lack of animal and human studies. There’s a good amount of evidence that suggests it might be beneficial and nothing that says that it is harmful.

So, after years of offers, I recently tried it. At a friend’s house, a concoction of chaga and cinnamon was kept warm on the wood stove. The flavor was mild, similar to a black tea or a weak coffee, but with no bitterness. It was not bad, and seemed like something that would be good mixed with strong blend of chai spices.

We decided that it would be fun to do a little winter foraging and find some in the woods. We discussed three potential locations near our house, all northern hardwood forests with some yellow birch. I advocated for a place a few miles from our house, where the ground slopes down to a creek and ultimately the river a mile or so away. I haven’t spent much time in this area, so it was a good excuse to go there. I had a hunch that it might have more yellow birch than the other areas we were considering, and it turns out that I was right. There were tons of yellow birch trees in the snowy forest.

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Looking for yellow birch trees (and chaga) among the hemlocks.

We went out on our cross country skis, although snowshoes probably would have been more efficient in the deep, powdery snow. The forest had a lot of yellow birch, as well as hemlock, but we didn’t see any chaga for a long time. We’d meander from birch tree to birch tree, occasionally using our ski poles to knock clumps of snow off the bole and see if anything was underneath. But nothing was underneath and the snow would just fall into our faces or down our collars.

Eventually, we found chaga on a few trees. We used a hatchet to remove it from the tree (which doesn’t hurt the fungus or the tree if done correctly) and put it in a backpack to bring home. Lately, we’ve been having chaga tea in the evenings. Hopefully the claims are true and there are health benefits, but it’s a nice little evening ritual regardless.

Foraging Starts in Winter

I’ve had aspirations to forage for a long time. I have a copy of Edible Wild Plants that I bought sometime while I was in high school. It’s one of the oldest reference books that is on my shelf, and yet I haven’t used it that much. While I know that many of the plants that I frequently see are edible—like cattail and wintergreen and nettles—I generally haven’t gone through the effort to find, collect, prepare, and eat these plants. Beyond berries and other wild fruits, my foraging efforts to date have been pretty limited to a handful of trips to gather wild leeks and search (generally unsuccessfully) for morel mushrooms.

Wild leeks in spring.
Wild leeks in spring.

I want to forage more this year, but there isn’t much available in the middle of winter with two feet of snow on the ground. It will be about two more months before the maple sap starts to run, signaling the beginning of the new year from the perspective of a plant or hibernating creature.

In the meantime, I am taking time during the long winter to locate foraging opportunities for later in the year. The snow makes it easy to get around in the woods (with snowshoes) in places that are too wet or brushy to easily get to during other times of the year. Plus, the lack of leaves on deciduous plants makes it easier to see longer distances in the woods, some plants to stand out. Ostrich fern is one of these notable plants because it leaves its fertile fronds out in the winter. These poke through the snow and point to where to look for fiddleheads this spring. I noticed abundant ferns during the summer, and now I’m looking for more locations where they are particularly dense. Yellow birch and burdock are other plants that are in my sights these days, so hopefully there will be more foraging in the future.

Ostrich ferns in the winter.
Ostrich ferns in winter.