Wednesday, March 27, 2019 Amanda Coniglio
The count down is on! It is almost ramp season (sometimes mid-to-late April but usually early May)! I cannot wait to get my hands on some fresh, spring ramps (also called wild leeks or spring onions), and the upcoming excitement has me thinking about all the tasty treasures to be found in the woods, wild/abandoned fields, and even the good old backyard starting in the spring. Even the most novice forager, or if you happen to be stranded in the woods, or even super hungry on a nice little or long hike, can easily pick out some super tasty edible treats from the woods (or fields, or creek side, or yard… you get the drift).
So, let’s start with ramps. Ramps are found in the spring (I’m sure you’ve seen some of us diehards out there along ditches or edges of the woods digging them up!) in eastern North America typically along stream beds, drainage ditches, and in moist areas of the woods. They are identified by the one or two flat leaves on a red/pinkish stem *(see a photo) sticking up from the ground. They grow in patches and if you think you have found some, tear a leaf off and smell it. If it smells of onion and garlic, congratulations, you have found your newest culinary obsession! To harvest, dig up the onion like bulb or pick leaves from the plant. The whole thing is edible and delicious; but please be respectful and NEVER harvest a whole patch, leave plenty behind to regenerate the next year- overharvesting of ramps is quickly leading to their endangerment (yikes!).
Moving on to wild strawberries. Wild strawberry season varies based on location and warmth and they grow throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. They can be found in New York typically by mid-June. These little beauties can be found typically anywhere from your very own yard, outer edges of the woods, along streams, in fields and also on slopes and hillsides. The plant looks just like a domestic strawberry plant, only smaller and the fruits are also mini versions of domestic strawberries. You typically won’t find these little jewels in abundance as the wild life love them as well. With these you are more likely to get a little snack, a handful if you’re lucky! But they are so worth it! You can also dig up a few wild strawberry plants and plant them in your garden where they will spread quickly, giving you your own little strawberry patch!
Now, speaking of wild berries, two more easy-to-recognize types are the raspberries and the blackberries. These grow in brambles/ patches along road ways, at the edge of wooded areas, along the banks of bodies of water (ponds and streams), and among overgrown fields throughout the summer. These bushes are very thorny, so you will want to protect yourself by wearing long pants, long sleeves and gloves (or just stick to the berries on the outer edges of the brambles). Raspberry season tends to be earlier than blackberry season and they can be red or black. Blackberries tend to be slightly longer than the raspberry and are black when ripe.
Last on my list of “musts” for foraging is sumac. You know, those large bush-like trees with deep red cones? The ones that you have likely been told your whole life are poisonous? Well they are NOT poison sumac, they are staghorn sumac! Poison sumac has little green or white berries, not the large red cones like the staghorn *(see photo of staghorn sumac here). This grows abundant throughout most of the U.S. and is best when harvested in August to September. To harvest, cut the “staghorn” or as I call it, the cone, where it meets the branch. So, what do you do with the sumac? My favorite use of sumac is as a spice, it has a tart and lemon-like flavor that elevates your cooking game! To use it as a spice, remove the little red berries that make up the cone and put them into a blender. Process in the blender for a couple minutes, the seed will separate from the red fluffy stuff. From there use a sifter or strainer sift out all the red powder, discard the seeds, and on a lined baking sheet roast the red stuff for 6 minutes (on 300 degrees F). Sumac also makes for a fantastic tea – hot or cold, chock-full of antioxidants!
If you aren’t already obsessed with all or some of the above gifts from Mother Nature, get out there this year and give foraging a try – or if you are less adventurous, head to your local farmers market where some of these might be found!
NOTE: Always remember when out in the woods or fields, protect yourself from bugs and ticks and always wash the fruits of your labor before consuming!
*Photo credit to, in order, thegardenofeating.org and thechoppingblock.com
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