Preserving Spring – Wild Leeks (or ramps)
As part of an ongoing series of posts following up our article on Preserving Spring in Edible Toronto, today`s post is a how-to preserve one of my all-time favourite spring ingredients: wild leeks or ramps.
Update (May 15, 2012): you can now find quick access here to all of our
Wild leeks are much smaller than their big domestic brothers. You can acquire them two ways: forage for them or purchase them, assuming you can find them. Wild leeks need care when you harvest – once a leek is plucked from the ground, it will not grow back.
If you`re harvesting them yourself, guidelines suggest you should take 5% or less to allow that patch of wild leek to remain sustainable. The difficulty with such a guideline is pretty straightforward – if everyone took 5% from the same patch, the patch would disappear. I know of several places in or near my house that I could harvest them which I avoid for this reason. We are spoiled with a sustainable hunting cabin North of the city and the patch of ramps (aka wild leeks) I harvest from is 13 kilometers deep into the forest.
Leeks have appeared at more and more farmers markets and even some grocery stores. The ethics of purchasing them can again be challenging; after all if the vendor picked 100% of a crop, you would have no way of knowing. My advice for overcoming this is to simply talk and build relationships with the suppliers and purchase from trusted sources who have a strong reputation. Examples in Toronto would include Forbes Wild Foods and Mark Trealout (Kawartha Ecological Growers). Both are regulars at Farmers Markets across the city and visiting one of our many fine markets will likely yield some results.
Here’s a picture of a wild leek from last year:
There are two parts to the leek which are preserved differently. The bulbs will withstand (and adore) the acid of a pickling treatment while the leafy greens will be best (in my opinion) frozen for additions to stocks, soups and sauces. We live in an apartment with a tiny freezer so we are very selective when it comes to freezing – and this is a must every year.
Here’s a few recipes:
Frozen Leek Pesto
Freezing is one of my all-time favourite preserving methods. It’s so simple and there’s little to clean up. The disadvantages are space, energy and the use of a plastic storage bag or two.
The highlights: quickly blanch the greens of the leeks (i.e. seconds in boiling water and then dipped in an ice bath to cool) before adding to your favourite pesto and freezing in muffin cups to be used as single-portions later.
I rarely follow a precise recipe for pestos (another advantage of freezing) and have even frozen the leek greens which have been touched by a bit of olive oil with nothing else added, in which case the term “pesto” would be pretty loose. I like this alternative because it retains the flavor of the leek and allows grater options later. If you were looking for something more traditional, try this type of idea:
1/2 cup wild leek greens
1/2 cup basil (could replace this by doubling your leeks – for a twist you could begin growing the basil now)
1 tablespoon olive oil (if concerned with local, try canola and add a teaspoon at a time checking flavor)
1 teaspoon lemon zest (again, the locavores may want to skip this)
1/4 cup pine nuts (toasted)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano (a local alternative could be a very old; i.e. 6 year white cheddar)
When it comes to freezing you can take a lot of liberties (this is not the case when canning) so have some fun.
On to the bulbs! Our friend Tigress is running a 12-month canning challenge where 120+ people (mostly armed with blogs) are preserving a mystery ingredient every month. Last month was Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and you’ll find a lot of onion/ leek recipes there.
The most important thing to know about preserving leeks is that they are a vegetable and are low-acid. This means that our options for canning become somewhat limited (although the term is completely relative) – generally this means we can pickle or pressure can (more on that later in this series when we tackle asparagus).
You want o use a tested recipe here – if you`re looking for help on how the process works, we`ve put a very comprehensive case study (grab a coffee or a beverage of your choice because it`s wordy) in the preserving section you can access through the top of the page.
Most pickling recipes are larger than what one would often need for wild leeks. Consider reducing the quantity of brine or doing a small batch of pearl onions if you can get your hand on them this time of year (I have seen some from cellars):
8 cups of onions (loose packed; this is a guideline)
5.5 cups of white vinegar (must be 5% as most is – if your vinegar doesn`t say, move on)
1 cup water (purists would use distilled)
2 teaspoons of canning salt (you can use kosher salt; canning salt can be tougher to find and it`s only advantage is a potentially clearer brine)
2 cups sugar (this isn`t local but adds a sweetness that makes these pickles sing with cheese and other savouries)
8 teaspoons mustard seed
4 teaspoons celery seed
We also find that coriander seed can be a secret weapon; you can add hot pepper flakes if you`d like as well. So much for secret.
Simmer vinegar, water, salt and sugar for 3-minutes before adding the leeks (if you are doing leeks and onions, do the two separately).
Once you`ve simmered for 3-minutes, add the leeks and bring back to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes (start timing once you`r back at a boil). Add into hot sterilized pint jars (leaving a half inch of headspace), remove any air bubbles and place in a hot water bath under a full boil for 10 minutes (the case study will help newcomers with this – if your`re looking for further help feel free to leave questions below).
You`re off to the races!
If you want to celebrate the wild leek to it`s extreme, there`s a legendary picnic at Eigensinn Farm each spring. It`s not for the faint of wallet but was one of our major food events last year. 15 of Toronto`s best chefs cooked wild leeks and maple syrup dishes in the middle of the forest for a 4-hour feast. We detailed our experience in 5-posts here.
Find quick access here to all of our wild leek/ ramp recipes (preserving and otherwise).