Saturday, March 15, 2014

Foraging for delicious

Ahhhhhhh spring- I have soooo been waiting for you!! Besides the warmer days and no more playing auto hockey, the amazing gifts of nature appear, and people all over the country are wandering the woodlands looking for tasty tidbits.

Foraging varies from region to region. I've heard people talk about fiddleheads, yet in Iowa I have never seen one. Wild asparagus grows in ditches along country roads, if you know of a good spot. It can be hard to find until it's too late and the fronds are overgrown- but remember that spot for next year! Mushrooms of many kinds grow in different areas. Iowa is one of the states blessed to have the morel mushroom and my favorite, the pheasantback mushroom. 

Berries and fruits appear at different times of the year as well, from May apples in the spring to wild plums in the fall, there is always something delicious growing if you know what you're looking for, and you know whereto find it.

My personal favorite of all the foraged foods is without a doubt, the ramp. They are sometimes called wild leek or wild onion, and they are super easy to identify and so amazingly delicious with their garlicky flavor. I live in the country and have the perfect ramp spot so I just carry a dandelion removing tool thingy (yes, that is their actual name) with me in the car and when I have a few minutes- I duck into the woods and come out with a few big fistfuls. The entire plant (except the roots) is edible. The bulb, which looks alot like your grocery store spring onion, has a very pungent garlic-like flavor and a little goes a long long way in seasoning. The tender leaves have a more oniony taste. I absolutely LOVE making a skillet of fried potatoes and tossing in a handful of sliced ramps near the end. Some pieces get brown and caramelized, others just melt into the potatoes. Simple and heavenly.

The ramp season in Iowa isn't all that long- just a few weeks of the right temperatures and then it gets hot, they turn tough, and you are out of luck until next year. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing but ramps are one of the new trendy foods in the foodie scene- chefs allover are using them in restaurants and recipes, which makes our humble ramp very popular, the the foraging competition more fierce. If you are lucky enough to find them, take a few moments and consider what you want to do with them. If you are a HUGE fan, as I am, I like to get as many as I can find, and preserve them for use all year long.

There are several options for preserving ramps. I slice them up like you would spring onions and put them in freezer bags and toss in the freezer. It's easy to break off a chunk for a recipe and just toss it in- no need to thaw. You can also slice and dehydrate them. I think this works great too but the flavor isn't as well preserved, but it's an acceptable option, especially if you are afraid of losing those baggies in the freezer (been there, done that).

Another idea is to make a compound butter using just the green part for a more subtle, less pungent flavor. It's super easy to put together and roll into logs, wrap, freeze, and slice off portions for topping a steak, potatoes, roasting poultry or tossing with cooked vegetables. For a compound butter you will need:

1 lb butter, softened (NEVER EVER use margarine)
2 cups sliced or chopped ramp leaves
2 tb lime juice

Buzz this in the food processor and divide into 4 portions. Using plastic wrap, form into logs, wrap tightly, pack into freezer bag and freeze. If the mixture is too soft to roll, pop it in the fridge for 10 minutes or so and roll when it holds its shape.

Another idea is to pickle them, and you'd end up with something a lot like pickled garlic. If you want to go with pickled ramps, here is what you need-

half pint jelly jars (washed, rinsed and holding in simmering water)
kosher salt
pickling spices, if desired

I use the smaller half pint jars for ramps- it's a manageable amount to have open and they look really nice in the jars standing up. Trim the ramps so that the top is about 1/2 inch from the rim of the jar (don't forget to trim off roots). Pack them into the HOT jars so they stand up and are fairly tightly packed in there. This is just me- you don't HAVE to be fancy, you can just pack them in the hot jars however you like. Add a 1/2 teaspoon of kosher, not table, salt to each jar, and any herbs or spices you like (this part is optional). In a saucepan heat equal amounts apple cider or white vinegar (must have 5% acidity) to boil. Pour boiling liquid over the ramps in the jars. Remove air bubbles, leave about a half inch headspace. Fix lids and rings. can either process in a boiling water bath and they will be sealed and shelf stable, or you can just refrigerate them (they MUST remain refrigerated if you choose this method). If you decide to boiling water bath them- 5 minutes processing time is what you need. Make sure all jars have sealed and refrigerate any that haven't.

Use pickled ramps just like you would pickled garlic- in recipes, on relish trays, antipasti. 

Now that you've learned a little about ramps, I hope you will try to find some and try them. Since they are so trendy I'm sure you CAN find them in specialty stores but the best part of ramps is the hunt, the fresh air, the woods, and digging them out with your own two hands. Go hunt some!

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