Wild leeks or “ramps” as oldtimers call them, were among the first greens consumed by settlers each year.
“By the time spring rolled around the potatoes and onions that farmers had stored for the winter were starting to get old,” said Susan Odom, a food historian and owner of Hillside Homestead, an historical bed and breakfast in Suttons Bay Township. “Folks were down to corn meal and salted meat. So ramps were something they looked forward to.”
As one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, ramps were traditionally consumed as the season’s first “greens.” Others were dandelion greens and fiddleheads — the unfurled fronds of ferns. However, ramps were considered a tonic because they provided necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without any fresh vegetables.
Anyone who gets out in the woods this time of year will find wild leeks growing amid Trillium, Lady Slippers and Dutchman’s Breeches. Their smooth, broad Lily-of-the-Valley-like leaves give off a strong odor of onion and garlic when trampled upon.
Like the early settlers, Odom took to the woods last week and came home with a basket of ramps. After cleaning, she introduced the shiny, white bulbs to her chicken fricasse which she cooked in a wood-fired stove in a Dutch oven.
Wanting to preserve the remainder for a later date, Odom pulled out her copy of Art of Cookery by 18th century English cookery writer Hannah Glasse.
“She didn’t have a recipe for pickled ramps, so I adapted a pickled asparagus recipe,” Odom said.
“I use the whole spice. If you use the powdered version, it makes the brine cloudy,” Odom said.
With the spices in the jar, she then added salt and covered the leeks with equal parts of vinegar and water.
“You don’t have to be afraid. It’s the vinegar that preserves them. Up until 1878, they just covered things with a cloth and things were fine,” Odom said.
Don’t want to get your hands dirty, but still curious about the spring treat?
Food for Thought, located just south of the Empire Township line in Benzie County, includes forest leeks in their organic leek marinara and dipping sauce which is sold by the jar.
Wide leaves fan out from the bright red and green gradient that adorns the stalks rising from the earth. The cultivation of rhubarb in Leelanau County means more to residents than a sign of spring. The sight also carries with it the aroma of freshly baked pies, cakes and the sweetly tart taste of sauces and jams. This is one of Sarah Kiessel’s favorite times of the year.
“It truly is an amazing bit of produce,” Kiessel said of the rhubarb in her Suttons Bay garden. “By definition it’s really a vegetable, but the way it’s used has caused many to classify it as a fruit.”
She’s quite right, in fact.
First cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago, this cool season, perennial vegetable is grown for it’s edible celery-like leafstalks. It’s the flavor of these stalks that makes rhubarb truly unique. Like some fruits, the tangy, tart flavor of rhubarb is most often sought for use in cakes, jellies and sauces. It’s the pies, however, that tend to be most popular, especially when combined with fresh strawberries.
Vic Chimoski and Tina Baker, co-owners of Chimoski Bakery in Suttons Bay, enjoy this time of year.
“People love coming in for our fresh baked rhubarb pies,” Tina said. “The strawberry rhubarb pies are some of the most popular. The mixture of sweet and tart compliment each other very well.”
Others like to take the simpler approach to enjoying rhubarb.
“Some people really enjoy eating it raw with sugar,” Kiessel said.” She doesn’t want people to get carried away though. She stressed the importance of taking caution when eating fresh rhubarb, for the leaves of the plant contain oxalic acid, which is harmful if ingested.
“When we’re done growing we cut the leaves off right away,” Kiessel said. “We have to keep a close eye on our grandchildren when they visit so they don’t wander into the garden and get really sick.”
Farmers and grocery stores remove the leaves before selling the stalks, so little risk exists for most fans of rhubarb.
“It’s so interesting to cook with,” Kiessel finished with a smile. “A real reminder that summer is right around the corner.”
Morel’s homely but nutritious
Carl “Bucky” Noonan calls mushrooming a Rite of Spring.
The 50-year-old said he was brought up mushrooming, learning the tricks of the hunt from his parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
“This year hasn’t been real red hot,” Noonan said. “It’s been hit and miss. Some have done well and some haven’t.”
Noonan blames the weather — an early warm-up followed by frost, with little rain. The ideal conditions for morels are rain and heat, he said.
“It’s kind of funny this year,” he said. “Everything’s off.”
Noonan wouldn’t reveal his secret sweet spot for finding morels, but he did have some tips for budding mushroom hunters. Look around the base of big ash trees, he said, or in old apple orchards.
And while the morel may be homely, it packs a lot of punch when fried in butter, creamed into soup, tossed into a pan of scrambled eggs and added to a salad. And, of course, what’s a pizza without mushrooms?
The little grey flavor nugget is nutritious, too, with a cup of fresh morels containing just 20 calories, about two grams of protein and less than a gram of fat.
At Hansen Foods of Suttons Bay and Buntings Cedar Market morels are selling for $25 per pound. For those who are earning a little spending money with their picks, Hansen’s is paying $15 and Buntings $20 per pound.
In the end, Noonan said, it’s not how many you find.
“It’s just getting out and going for a walk in the woods.”