Spring is upon us and even though it is not my most favorite time of year, it does produce some of my favorite culinary delights – Morel Mushrooms and Ramps (Wild Leeks). Both of these spring treats can sometimes be found in your local specialty produce store, but I think the most satisfying way to enjoy them is to go and find them yourself.
I took a little trip out into the woods just the other day to take a look and see what I could find, even though I know it is a bit early for either ramps or morels to start popping up. Much to my dismay, I came up empty handed, but it was still great to get out in the fresh air and shake off those winter doldrums. I was able to scout out some “secret spots” that I think will be great in another week or two.
Believe it or not these flora can be found right here in Northern Illinois and more importantly in the Chicago area. Did you know that the name "Chicago" is the French version of the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa ("Stinky Onion"), named for the plants common along the Chicago River? Do you know what those “stinky onions” are? Ramps!
Yes, ramps can and do grow in a lot of the wooded areas around our fair city. If you are not in the culinary loop, Ramps look similar to a scallion, but have a flat leave-like top instead of the tight tube like top of the scallion and also have a reddish/purplish stem. They have a wonderful garlicky flavor and you are likely to see them popping up on menus all over the city in the next week or so. So how does one go about finding them? Get yourself a good book on edible wild plants. This is one of my favorites: A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America.
Next find somewhere that fits the bill for the habitat that they might grow, get your boots on and hit the woods. Don’t forget, ALWAYS get permission to forage on any privately owned land.
There are several species of Morels, but here you will mostly find Yellow Morels. If you happen to find a Black Morel, consider yourself extremely lucky and don’t forget the spot where you found it. There will be more next year if the conditions are right. Also you should probably go right out and buy a lottery ticket as well, before the lucky horse shoe falls out of you-know-where.
Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) are more commonly found under deciduous trees rather than conifers, as well as Black morels (Morchella elata), Deciduous trees commonly associated with morels in the northern hemisphere include ash, sycamore, tulip tree, dead and dying elms, cottonwoods and old apple trees (remnants of orchards). Before you go out, get yourself a good book on wild mushrooms as well. If you do not know what to look for, eating the wrong wild mushroom can be EXTREMELY hazardous. So study hard and follow the golden rule of mushroom hunting; If you are not sure what kind of mushroom it is, DO NOT EAT IT!
Here is one of the best books on the topic in my opinion: Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide.
Now that you have found some Ramps or Morels, what should you do with them? My favorite way to enjoy ramps is simply to grill them until the white “oniony” part becomes soft and tender. Then dress them with a bit of olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon. As for the Morels, just slice them in half length-wise and sauté them with a bit of butter, salt and pepper in a pan. Keep it simple and enjoy.
Do you have any ideas on how to cook Ramps or Morels? Share them here in the comments.