When you see me coming out of the woods of the Superior National Forest these days, expect me to be covered with dirt and with a severe case of onion breath.
The reason for this anti-social condition? Wild leeks.
Wild leeks, a.k.a. ramps are one of the first seriously green things to poke out of the ground after the snow melts from the north woods. Unlike, say, Wikileaks, there is nothing so secret about these harbingers of spring. They stick out like green lanterns amidst the ground cover.
I’ve seen leeks in places where there are plenty of maple trees. Place names like the Onion River are another clue that you might be wandering in leek territory. Most of the one’s I’ve found have been further up from Lake Superior, around Leveaux Mountain and on trails to the east of Britton Peak. The leeks look like, well, leeks. They have triangular leaves (reddish near the base) and the occasional central stalk with florets at the top. To make sure that you have the genuine article, you can take a pinch of one of the leaves. If it tastes like onion, you’ve hit jackpot. Now dig.
The bulbs are deep in there. You won’t get them out until your hands are thoroughly caked with muck with a healthy layer of crud cemented beneath your fingernails. The good news is that it is easy to remove most of the dirt by peeling away the outer layer. The leaves are fantastic in a stir fry or in a salad, but won’t stay fresh for long. The bulbs may last a little longer, but why would you wait to enjoy such a tasty treat?
Slightly less pungent then onions, leeks have their own delicate and savory flavor.
Though leeks may be abundant out there, a responsible forager knows to pick judiciously. Because pulling up a leek essentially takes the whole plant out of the forest, they are easy to overharvest. Take only a small fraction of the leeks you find. Try not to harvest too much from any one area (often I will walk off the trail for a bit) and pick just enough for your own use – ensuring that there will be a healthy crop in the years to come.
After you’ve spent some time leak foraging, tasting leaves as you go, be aware of the impression you’ll make on loved ones when you come out of the woods, streaked with mud, reeking of onion and eager to show off your harvest by waving the dirt-covered bulbs in their faces. They might not want you to stand too close.
-Tom Fagin, Activities