By Bob Confer
Summer and fall have their own special bounties, both cultivated and wild, to choose from across Western New York. Spring, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of fruits and vegetables as the plants are still growing and recovering from the winter.
That doesn’t mean we are without something for our palates to enjoy. You can find asparagus at roadside stands or yummy maple syrup at farm markets and seasonal pancake houses. And, if you are the adventurous outdoors sort, you can find leeks in our local woods.
The leek is a member of the onion family and also goes by the name of ramp, a name more commonly used in Appalachia. Unlike other wild onions, the leaves and flowers are not seen at the same time. Instead, in these parts, the leaves typically come up in early April (depending on the severity and length of the winter) and last to maybe second week of May. Those leaves are 8 to 12 inches in length and have reddish stems. They typically grow in tightly-packed clusters, in groups of two to as many as two dozen. After the leaves have withered you will see in June and July a small cluster of creamy white flowers atop a single, naked stem.
Leeks are found in cool, somewhat moist woods with rich soils. The best places to look for them are along streams. In the lake plains, look closer to the Niagara escarpment where the soils are more conducive to their growth. In the Southern Tier, such as throughout Allegany County, they can be found in many forested valleys and ravines.
To harvest them, you need only a small spade. Their bulbs are close to the surface (maybe 2” underground), so barely stick the spade in the ground and pop them out. It is that small white, onion-like bulb that you want for cooking. You can also use the leaves (minus the bitter red stems) in salads. They, too, have an oniony flavor.
As with any wild plant or animal, sensible harvest is crucial to maintaining both the local and the greater populations. Do not take too many leeks; for a family of four just a dozen plants should satisfy what needs you may have for making a springtime dish or two. If you take too many, you will prevent the leeks in the area from efficiently flowering and spreading their seeds, thus eliminating them from the forest. It’s laborious for the plants to provide you food: It takes a few years to make a harvestable bulb and up to 7 years for the plants to become mature enough to make seeds.
Sustainable crops become a problem the further north you go. As a matter of fact, a black market for wild leeks exists in Quebec where years of overharvest have made them a species of special concern. There, it’s illegal to have more than 50 bulbs or plants in possession and leeks cannot be sold commercially or by the individual.
It’s a different story in NY’s Southern Tier and points south. In the Allegheny Mountains the plants are fairly abundant. In Appalachia, people will take to the woods in small armies to harvest them each spring. There are numerous, well-attended ramp festivals throughout the Virginias, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, some having attendance measured in the thousands. There, the pungent plants, which smell like garlic but have a subtle onion flavor, are served in a number of ways, fried individually, put in eggs, pickled, or turned into soup. For readers of this column who hail from the lake plains, know that it’s not uncommon to see roadside stands selling leeks in our Southern Tier and if you cross the border into Pennsylvania you will find a veritable bounty of leek trade in places like Potter County where leek dips and leek sausages offer prime cuisine.
Throughout WNY, perhaps due to many families having German heritage, leek and potato soup seems to be a preferred dining option.
This is the simplest leek dish to make. You’ll need 6 tablespoons butter; 12 to 14 leeks (sliced); 4 large russet potatoes (peeled, diced); and 9 cups of vegetable broth or chicken/turkey stock depending on your preference. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the leeks and cover; cook until leeks are tender, stirring often. Add potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring often, until potatoes begin to soften. Add the broth or stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until the potatoes are very tender. Puree until potatoes and leeks are smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
Leeks provide much deliciousness and are sure-fire sign of spring and one of the few things you can actually say are a flavor of spring. But, again, anyone’s who’s familiar with the plant or new to it should harvest it sensibly. It doesn’t take much to harm a leek community within a forest – some conservationists say you should never take more than 5% of leeks from a woodlot. That said, treat its goodness as a rare delicacy to be enjoyed sparingly. Savor — and save — leeks.