Nothing confirms the victory of spring over winter quite like the appearance of ramps (or wild leeks) in the woodlands. When I spot that first patch of glowing, lime-green leaves amongst the brown decay of leaves on the forest floor, I feel I can say with some confidence that winter is officially behind me (knock on wood, of course.) I am always overcome with the sense of victory as I hold up my first freshly dug fistful of the season, inhaling that delicious leeky pungency (like a cross between an onion and garlic). It is a prize hard-won after enduring months of hardships (snow, ice, -15 degree days), and the leeks are like my own personal holy grail.
Wild leeks, or ramps (Allium tricoccum) as they are also known, spot the hillsides throughout Eastern hardwood forests, spanning from Minnesota over and up through Maine. While they are present (and harvestable) in the woodlands year round, they are particularly beloved in spring, when they are one of the first wild edibles to greet our green thirsty eyes. They can be identified by their smooth and elongated oval leaves, which are light green in color, and give off a delicious oniony fragrance that is unmistakable. The plants grow in dense stands from the floor of moist, open woodlands. Once you’ve found the leaves, you only have to dig down a little to reveal a smooth white bulb, sometimes tinged with a hint of red, which, with a little prodding, easily pulls up out the soil. Peel away any slimy outer layers and rinse off in a stream, and you can go home with only the worry of how you will possibly choose what application to use them in.
Like other members of the onion family, ramps are rich in the same sulfur compounds and flavanoids that confer anti-cancer benefits, boost immune function, and protect the cardiovascular system from oxidative stress. Indeed, leeks may actually be stronger in some of these effects than their cultivated counterparts, as wild plants often contain higher levels of antioxidant compounds due to the increased stress of their living situation. Wild leeks are also extremely high in vitamins A and C, and contain good stores of minerals such as iron, selenium (a potent antioxidant) and chromium (necessary for blood sugar balance). Their pungent, spicy flavor is just the thing we require energetically in the spring, helping to stimulate and revitalize our sluggish systems after the cold weather and heavy foods of winter, while also protecting against the congesting effects of cool, damp spring weather.
Leeks are delicious additions to many spring dishes, pairing particularly well with eggs (ramp frittata anyone?) and of course making a natural companion to potatoes in the delectable potato leek soup, which is always a favorite. They can also be added to stir fries, roasted, grilled, added raw to salads or cooked into soups. This year, however, I have found a new favorite application, which is pesto. Their oniony, garlicy goodness creates a sublime pesto, which, not for the faint hearted, packs a good deal of punch. Spread on breads, added to pasta or stirred into soups – the pesto allows one to easily infuse their meal with leeky goodness whenever the whim takes you. You can also make up a big batch, and freeze the pesto, ensuring that you can have leeks in your life at any time of year (that is, if you refrain from eating it all in a week, which has thus far been a tremendous challenge not to do).
Wild Leek Pesto
Makes 2 cups.
Note: I combine dandelion greens, another abundant and nutrient rich spring green with cleansing and digestion stimulating properties, which helps to cut down somewhat on the pungency factor. You could add any number of other spring greens, however – nettles, chickweed, or even non-wild spring greens like spinach or arugula. If you prefer a less pungent pesto, use only the leek leaves and save the bulbs for another application.
- 4 cups loosely packed dandelion greens or other spring green
- 3 cups loosely packed leeks and their greens
- 1.5 cups oil (sunflower, olive oil, walnut oil, hemp oil, etc)
- 1 cup toasted nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, etc)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan (optional)
- juice of 1 large or 2 small-sized lemons
- 1 -2 tsp salt, or to taste
Place all ingredients into a food processor and process until smooth. Taste for seasonings, and adjust as necessary.