Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Spring Foraging Treasures

There is nothing that could be more satisfying than harvesting one’s own food. Deep in the brain, there must be a collection of ancient neurons that retain a memory of being a hunter-gatherer. The simple act of plucking a fresh carrot from the soil, or perhaps snipping some home-grown herbs from one’s garden, results in the release of a kind of primordial endorphin. I will eat tonight!

Now, take a walk through the woods and look to the ground. You'll see a vast diversity of living things. Some of these are edible and some are poisonous. Some just don’t taste good. The ability to distinguish the delicious from the lethal is an amazing, almost mystical ability for which I have no end of respect. A word of warning, and I have experience to prove the point, never eat anything you find in the forest until you have inquired with someone who knows what they are doing. Case in point: wild leeks, sometimes known as ramps, are delicacies that are revered by chefs and increasingly becoming a bit of a spring time cliché in the north-eastern part of North America. Foodies can't get enough of these punchy greens. However, when ramps are poking out of the dead leaves in the woods, they look an awful lot like Lily of the Valley. Lily of the Valley, while dainty and pretty when in bloom, is also deadly poisonous. Eating even a small amount of these plants will result in a crippling gastro-intestinal crisis and will also affect one’s heart rate. Hospitalization would be likely, death not uncommon.

I was taking a stroll through a local ravine the other day and found what looked to me like a huge whack of wild ramps growing among a small grove of oak trees. What a lucky break, I thought to myself, and proceeded to unearth a dozen or so green shoots (which resulted in the aforementioned release of the hunter-gatherer endorphin within my brain). I walked about a bit more, enjoying the loamy smell of the wood, utterly pleased with myself. Anyway, I eventually headed home and started examining my foraged leaves and sniffing them and so on. They didn’t smell like leeks, onion, garlic or any other of the smells associated with wild leeks. That was my first red flag. I also noticed that the bottom of the shoot didn’t really have a proper bulb as a leek should. The internet isn’t much help either. I did a google image search for ‘ramps’ on my smart phone and found a plant that was the spitting image of what I was holding. I am lucky that I have a neighbour who is a relatively knowledgeable forager. I decided to check with him before doing anything else, and I am certainly glad I did. I was holding lily of the valley. Egad,  a close call.  And just so the day wasn’t a total bust, after chucking the offending leaves, my green-thumbed neighbour let me raid his garden for fresh chives which certainly brightened up my omelet that morning. Lesson learned.

When I’m not busy misidentifying plant life in the forest, I’m doing it in the green grocer. A few weeks back I found what appeared to be ramps in my favourite little fruit and veg store. I took them home, put them in several dishes for a dinner party, proclaimed to my guests that they were eating the revered ramp, only later to find out I was supping on spring garlic. Spring garlic is wonderful, but not a wild plant at all. It is cultivated traditional garlic in what is called its ‘wet’ stage; a delicious ingredient no doubt, but not ramps.

On the left, spring garlic, on the right, ramps. Similar..but totally different!

Finally, this past week, after every chef has had their way with them, and every Toronto foodie is probably sick of them; I finally found some wild leeks in Kensington market to call my own.

Now what to do with them?

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