To Take a Leek

Wild leeks, location undisclosed

I come from a town full of secrets. People here don’t talk about certain things: their fishing holes, swimming holes, backcountry-ski glades, their morel patches. I’ve told too many people already about my wild leek spot, so forgive me if what follows is vague.

On Saturday my husband, Mark, and I foraged the first leeks of the season. The tuliplike leaves were still small, but they were the greenest thing in the woods and they were beautiful in the white April light. We crouched and troweled through last fall’s sugar-maple leaves into loose, warm, black earth.

Leeks are uncommon in the predominantly acid, granite-based soils of the Adirondacks. A few areas, however, are undergirded by limestone. You know you’ve found a band of Adirondack limestone when you see toothwort, blue cohosh, and other calcium-loving plants. These rich woods are where we look for leeks.

Ramps, as wild leeks are also known, are a traditional spring food, but locavores are overharvesting many places. The plant is listed as threatened in Quebec, where its sale is prohibited.

A leek plot can take years to recover from even a five-percent harvest. A 2004 study estimated that a 10-percent harvest once every 10 years would be sustainable in southern Appalachian forests.

We dug only a few dozen off a patchy acre, being careful to cull selectively and to move often. We replaced soil and leaf litter. We’ve known this site for more than a decade, and so far it does not seem to have diminished.

I admit it’s hard to exercise restraint as broken and bruised leaves release a skunky yet mouthwatering smell, a powerful phytochemical freshness after a long winter. Wild leeks are nothing like the cultivated batons you find in the supermarket. They are about the size of scallions but flat-leaved, garlicky, and tender from white bulb to red stem to green tip.

As soon as we got home we washed them and chopped a few and scrambled them with eggs—so simple and so good.

The next fresh green harvest will be dandelion leaves, and there’s no limit on those.

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