Tuesday, June 22, 2010

foraging fail and win

First the fail: Rhubarb season is coming to a close, and here in Duluth it grows everywhere: vacant lots, alleyways, in overgrown hedges, everywhere. I figured that the neglected rhubarb with long, skinny, green stalks would be more tart than maintained rhubarb, but I thought I could simply add more sugar to compensate, so on my way home from the farmer's market the other day I picked a bunch of a scraggly, abandoned rhubarb. But then when I got it home and cleaned it up and tried a bit, I had to throw it all in the compost. It wasn't just tart, but was inedibly bitter and bad tasting, and no amount of sugar or anything else would have salvaged it. I post this only because when I went online to research the subject, to see if everyone but me already knew that you can't eat neglected rhubarb, or to see if there was some inedible rhubarb look-a-like (not really), I found surprisingly little on the subject. So this post is a public service announcement for urban foragers everywhere: unmaintained rhubarb with thin green stalks is not worth harvesting. I tried several stalks from several sites, and even covered in sugar they were spit-out-in-your-hand bad--and I like tart, sour food. From what I understand, rhubarb needs to be dug up and moved every few years or else it will start putting out thinner and thinner stalks, and I guess that also effects the flavor.

Now the foraging win: Yesterday I went out to an undisclosed location in the pouring rain to dig up some wild leeks (a.k.a. ramps). This is the environment I was in. Can you see the leek?
At this time of year, the leaves are completely died back. I was hoping they'd still be flopped over and obvious, but no such luck. So you have to look for this flower stalk:
But not all leeks produce a flower stalk, and I've heard that the leeks that do flower don't taste as good (and any way, you'd want to leave the flower stalk to develop into seeds so that more leeks can grow). So you look for the flower stalk, then poke around in the leaves and duff to find the little leek nubs poking up through the dirt.
If you can't tell from the picture, the leek nubs stick out from the soil maybe a half inch at best, usually less, and sometimes not at all. Compare that to a month earlier in the season, when they are rather a bit more obvious.

But now at the end of June, the bulbs are so much bigger, some of them close to an inch and a half across. The flavor is noticeably stronger than that of May leeks, but I still don't think they're as overpowering and pungent as some other local naturalists seem to think. The flavor now is more garlicky than oniony, but is sharper, cleaner and sweeter than cultivated garlic.

I pulled up enough leeks for a couple meals, and I've been roasting them with olive oil and salt and serving them over pasta. Roasted whole they are crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside, like roasted garlic, but what I like best is cutting them in half and separating some of the layers. They crisp up into leek chips and the sugars caramelize and they are swooningly delicious. Slicing them also makes the leeks go a bit further. Wild leeks are at least semi-common, and I know of several small colonies and a few larger ones here in town. But it can take up to 18 months for the seed to germinate and seven years before the plant is harvestable, so it's better to be frugal.

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