The Best Ramps Will Blow Your Head Off

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The Best Ramps Will Blow Your Head Off

We checked in with forager Steve Stacey for his thoughts on harvesting the lovely, potent, and much sought-after wild leek. Variously known as ramps, these short-lived alliums are basically the seasonal chef’s wet dream.
May 26, 2015, 9:00pm

Last week, we spoke with Steve Stacey, forager and director of the Local CFC—a community food center in Stratford, Ontario—who gave us some tips on foraging one of the finest alien tentacles known to man: the fiddlehead.

Stacey's advice was so delicious that we checked back in with him for his thoughts on harvesting the lovely, potent, and much sought-after wild leek. Variously known as ramps, these short-lived alliums are basically the seasonal chef's wet dream.

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With a harvesting season a bit longer than the fiddlehead, a subtle garlic taste, and a beautiful contrast of emerald leaves and bright white stalks, ramps are easily spring's sexiest forest weed. Still, we're reaching the tail-end of their short season, so grab them—ethically, of course—while you can.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Steve. So, how do you go about finding wild leeks? Steve Stacey: They like the forest, but [they] don't need to be near water or necessarily as isolated as fiddleheads. I had only been to this spot one time before, so I had to go down a series of trails to find the right one. We just stepped on to a trail, and then there they were all around us. You're usually going to find these guys … in the middle of the forest.

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Once you've found them, what's the best way to harvest them? I just bring a tool that people use for pulling out dandelions by the root. It's this sort of elongated curved tool with a little fork on the end. You just get that right underneath, and you slip it under where the bulb is and where the roots start, and you can pull each leek out individually. That way, you don't have to pull the whole lump out. From a sustainability perspective, it's a good idea to not pick the whole thing through. Usually, I just pick around the periphery of a patch, because you don't find them in singles—you find them in bunches. I'll go around the perimeter of the bunch and then just leave the center, that way it will continue to reproduce year after year.

What's the best time of the year to harvest ramps? The wild leeks are the very first thing to pop up. Everything's dead and they're the first green thing in the forest coming out of the floor. So up here it's a few weeks to a month after the last snow has melted, around the first of May. The season is a bit longer than fiddleheads—about four or five weeks—but the product does change over that time. The best is to get them as early as you can. It's a little late in the season. The best ones are little babies with small bulbs at the end, and these are a bit bigger. They're powerful when they get a bit bigger. I ate one raw when we were foraging and it blew my head off.

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How can you tell which ones are good? You can't really tell. You have to pull them up and go from there. But the one thing about ramps is that they're super-powerful, especially when they start to get bigger. I'd say the smaller the better.

What's the best way to prepare them? When you harvest a wild leek, it's kind of like harvesting two products. You have the leafy green top, and you can use it as a strong herb or mustard green. Cook it or serve it raw, or maybe make pesto out of it. Then you get the bulb, which has this crunchiness to it and a lot of cool texture. When I pickle them, I just pickle the bulb. It balances out that heat with the other flavors.

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What about storing them for later in the season? Pickling's the best way to prolong them and eat them out of season. If you want to freeze them, you should blanch the tops first beforehand, or else they will be slimy when you thaw them out.

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There have been issues in the past with wild leeks and sustainability. Can you tell us about that? It's really important that people harvest ethically—it always is. They've banned wild leek harvesting in Quebec because they were picked out so hard, but there's no real reason that should be happening. It's easy enough to just harvest sparingly and still get everything you'd ever need. When they come, they come in pretty plentifully.

How do you feel issues like this effects the way people view foraging? It gives foraging a bad name. I don't like it when people say, Oh, you're going foraging? and say it in this weird, derogatory way. They just assume you're going out there and hacking up the bush and exploiting it. But there should be a strong emphasis on just respecting the plant and food, because you want to be able to come back for it next time. That's the point—sustainability.

Thanks for speaking with us, Steve.