April 15, 2011

Wild leeks (Bärlauch)

(Note to the reader: Before you go out harvesting your own wild leeks, please read the last paragraph of this article with some tips on how to do it sustainably)

When I first moved to Munich one of my favorite things to do was to go for walks in the English Garden. I moved here in spring and immediately noticed a distinctive yet elusive scent. It was distinctive in that it was earthy but pungent at the same time with a hint of something oniony and warm. It was elusive in that I had no idea what it was or where it came from. Christian didn't know either. And so it went - for years. My brain made a direct connection between Munich and that smell. To me it became the scent of Munich. And then, one day not long after the "Bärlauch"craze had taken off full throttle in the city - the herb seemed to be popping up in every dish known to man - I went for a walk through the park and finally made the connection. Bärlauch! That was what I had been smelling and searching for all this time. And it was everywhere. Long, shiny green leaves springing up in patches around trees, one of the first signs of spring's arrival and increasing in olfactory intensity throughout the summer.

I went home and looked it up right away. I hadn't yet taken the time to find the English equivalent of Bärlauch and, in no time, I had it - wild leeks, known to many as ramps.

Now a few years or so before my big wild leek discovery I had read "Sarah" by JT Leroy (Laura Albert), which includes some not-so-nice, lengthy descriptions of ramps and what they do to your digestion and to your breath. So my first thought was to proceed with caution. But then I thought, how bad could it really be, especially with the herb flooding every cafe within a 20 mile radius. I hadn't heard a single complaint. And so I dove in. It was beautiful. Garlicky without being overwhelming and, for reasons I still do not understand, not lingering over to the next day. In other words, no morning-after garlic breath.

People interested in food and in trying "new" ingredients have been using wild leeks every spring for sometime as have those who cook locally in many parts of the world (where the herb has been in use for much longer). Perhaps one of the easiest ways to prepare and store the wild leek is to make pesto. Another benefit of making pesto is that you only need the leaves, which means you can leave the bulb in the ground where it will sprout again next spring. The decimation of the wild leek population has begun to be a problem in some places because of its newly found popularity and the fact that a lot of people pull up the whole plant, roots and all, when harvesting. Of course, the bulbs are delicious, too, and are brilliant company with eggs or sauteed in butter and tossed with pasta, but if you are going to harvest the bulbs don't harvest too many and make sure to snap off the roots and put them back into the ground. It will take a few years, but those roots will grow a whole new plant. Save the wild leek!

Bärlauch (wild leek) pesto

One bunch of wild leek leaves. Or more. The more you harvest or purchase, the more pesto you can make. Just remember: A little goes a long way, so don't make too much unless you are planning on storing it.

Olive oil , enough to make everything meld together plus some extra to put on top

Finely grated parmesan cheese, about a handful depending on how many wild leek leaves you have and how big your hands are

Pine nuts, 20 - 30 or to taste

Now, there are three ways to do this. Let's start with the easiest.

Chop the wild leek leaves into small pieces. Plop everything into a food processor and mix until fine. Voila!

Option 2:

Tear or chop the leaves into small pieces and use a mortar and pestle to pound them into a paste. Add some parmesan, pine nuts and oil and pound until everything is small and combined. Depending on the size of your mortar, you may have to do this in batches. This method takes longer, but the result is more rustic and, I think, more flavorful. Maybe it's the elbow greece?

Option 3 (for those of you without a food processor or a mortar and pestle):

Chop up the pine nuts and wild leek leaves until very fine. Combine with the cheese and olive oil. Stir well.

Enjoy over pasta, slathered on roast chicken or on top of a soup for extra flavor and a subtle kick.

If you want to save your pesto for later, put the pesto in a jar and pour a layer of olive oil about as thick as your finger over it and screw on the cap. Keep it in the fridge for a week or so or freeze it (an ice cube tray for portion-sized storage) for up to 6 months.

One more side note: If you do decide to harvest your own wild food make sure that you go with someone who knows what they are doing and bring a good field guide with you so that you don't confuse the plant you are looking for with a dangerous cousin.

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