Spring Flavors: Ramps, Morels and Fiddleheads

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I’ve always loved spring, even when I lived in the mild climate of California, because that’s when wild flowers dusted color over the usually brown hillsides. Now that I live where the winters are harsh, my appreciation for spring verges on rapture.

One of the reasons, as always, is food-related: although the full range of local produce is eons away for those of us in growing zones six and under on the USDA’s hardiness scale (southern Florida is a 10), nature throws us a bone by sending up a few wild delicacies in the early spring. The most prized of these are ramps, fiddleheads and morels.

They can be either expensive or free, depending on whether you buy them in a market or restaurant, or have access to land where they grow and know where to look. I’m no trend forecaster, but if the economy keeps heading south, I predict foraging will be hot this year.

One summer I had the pleasure of eating a meal prepared almost exclusively from wild ingredients, including stuffed wild grape leaves and pasta salad with pesto made from garlic mustard, the stuff most people consider a pesky weed. It was delicious. But I’m getting ahead of myself; we’re talking about spring.

Ramps, also called wild leeks, grow in the Northeast, as far south as the Appalachian mountain region and as far west as Missouri and Minnesota. They can be found in cool, damp areas of deciduous forests, emerging before the tree canopy develops. In those few weeks before they flower, ramps can be harvested for their green tops and bulbs.

Wild leeks have a pungent onion/garlic flavor and odor (in fact, make sure they have that distinctive smell, because lily of the valley, which has similar leaves but is odorless, is poisonous). The only way I’ve tried ramps is pickled, but they are a versatile ingredient. This simple spaghetti-with-ramps recipe from Gourmet magazine sounds particularly good.

Fiddleheads are the coiled fronds of young ferns, which resemble the scroll on the end of a violin. Like ramps, they grow in cool woodland areas and should be harvested soon after they emerge. New Englanders are particularly fond of their fronds, which can be steamed, boiled or sautéed; their flavor is similar to asparagus. After a rash of food-borne illnesses related to raw or undercooked fiddleheads investigated by the Centers for Disease Control in the 1990s, it’s now advised that they be cooked thoroughly.

Emeril Lagasse, better known for New Orleans cooking, actually hails from New England. This recipe from his show combines fiddleheads with another spring treat, morels.

Morels, of course, are the crazy looking mushrooms with the tall caps that resemble either a Conehead brain or a bunch of coral. Morel hunting, like all mushroom foraging, is not for the inexperienced or ill informed—you need to know how to distinguish between edible species and similar-looking fungi that can cause abdominal distress or worse if eaten.

If you’d like to learn more about foraging these and other wild foods, both the Forager Press and “Wildman” Steve Brill have informative Web sites with tips and recipes. Happy springtime!

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