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Thursday, April 30, 2015


Summer and fall have their own special bounties, both wild and cultivated, to choose from on the Niagara Frontier. Spring, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of fruits and vegetables as the plants are still growing and recovering from the winter.

That doesn’t mean we are without something for our palates to enjoy. You can find asparagus on roadside stands. And, if you are the adventurous outdoors sort, you can find leeks in our local woods.

What to look for

Leeks often grow in large bunches like this. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER / 
CONTRIBUTOR)
This leek is a member of the onion family and also goes by the name of ramp, a name more commonly used in Appalachia. Unlike other wild onions, the leaves and flowers are not seen at the same time.

Instead, in these parts, the leaves come up around the second or third week of April (depending on the
severity and length of the winter) and typically last through the second week of May. Those leaves are eight to 12 inches in length and have reddish stems. They typically grow in tightly-packed clusters, in groups of two to as many as two dozen.

After the leaves have withered you will see in June and July a small cluster of creamy white flowers atop a single, naked stem.

Where to look for them

Leeks are found in cool, somewhat moist woods with rich soils. The best places to look for them are along streams, especially closer to the escarpment where the soils are more conducive to their growth.

That said, public places where they are likely to be found are Royalton Ravine Park in Gasport, the Gulf Wilderness Park in the city of Lockport or the town of Lockport nature trail on Slayton Settlement Road.

How to harvest leeks

Leek bulbs are much smaller than the onions you'll get at the grocery store.
This is the time of year to harvest leeks. To do so, you need only a small spade. Their bulbs are close to the surface (maybe 2” underground), so barely stick the spade in the ground and pop them out. It is that small white, onion-like bulb that you want, although you can also use the leaves (just not the red stems) in salads, and they too have an oniony flavor.

As with any wild plant or animal, sensible harvest is crucial to maintaining both the local and the greater populations. Do not take too many leeks; for a family of four just a dozen bulbs should satisfy what needs you may have for making a springtime dish or two.

If you take too many, you will prevent the leeks in the area from efficiently flowering and spreading their seeds, thus eliminating them from the forest. Plus, it’s laborious for the plants to provide you food: It takes a few years to make a harvestable bulb.

While this isn’t a problem in the Appalachian or Allegheny Mountains where the plants are fairly abundant, it is the further north you go. As a matter of fact, a black market for wild leeks exists in Quebec where years of over-harvest have made them a species of special concern. There, it’s illegal to

have more than 50 bulbs or plants in possession and leeks cannot be sold commercially or by the individual as they are in the south -- it’s not uncommon to see roadside stands selling leeks even here in Western New York (Allegany County).

How to eat leeks

A typical leek leaf. Note the red stems.
Leeks are culinary delights, so much so that, especially in Appalachia, people will take to the woods in small armies to harvest them each spring. There are numerous, well-attended ramp festivals throughout the Virginias, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, some festivals having attendance measured in the thousands and, in the case of the Cosby Ramp Festival, the tens of thousands. There, the pungent plants, which smell like garlic but have a more subtle onion flavor, are served in a number of ways, fried individually, put in eggs, pickled or turned into soup.

Here in Western New York, maybe due to some of us having German heritage, leek and potato soup seems to be the preferred dining option.

That’s how I eat them and this is the simple recipe that I’ve used over the years (serves 8):

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 12 to 14 leeks (sliced)
  • 4 large russet potatoes (peeled, diced)
  • 9 cups of vegetable broth or chicken/turkey stock depending on your preference 

Preparation 

  • Melt butter in a saucepan. Add leeks and cover; cook until leeks are tender, stirring often. 
  • Add potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring often, until potatoes begin to soften. 
  • Add the broth or stock. Boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until the potatoes are very tender (about a half hour). 
  • Puree until potatoes and leeks are smooth. Season with salt and pepper.   

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where springtime means leeks and, in turn, a stinky kitchen. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



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