The first time Kathy Drue tasted local wild leeks, they were sautéed and served on toast. “I just could not believe what delicious food I was eating. I couldn’t believe this is coming from the woods.”
Now every late April or early May, you’ll find Kathy in the forest not far from her home in Aura, Michigan, the tiny town near L’Anse where her family has lived for more than three decades.
Actually, you won’t find her. Wild leek foragers guard their plant patches as jealously as seasoned anglers preserve the secret of their fishing holes.
But Kathy is more than willing to share her thoughts about wild leeks and what makes them great. “They have a very succulent flavor … of green onion and chives with a hint of garlic. You can chop and eat the tender leaves in a salad, but you don’t want the older rubbery leaves.”
Leeks, the cultivated variety, are a gourmet vegetable relative of garlic and onion, with a mild flavor that lends itself well to soup. Leeks also shine as a side dish when sautéed or braised and are a delicious, if pricey, addition to your favorite hotdish. The wild leeks that grow easily in the Lake Superior region are smaller, resembling over-large green onions, except the leaves are lush, thick, flat and folded. The edible portion of the leek is the white and light green part of the shaft, usually 6-10 inches in length and up to 2 inches in diameter.
At the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, you can almost always find cultivated leeks on the shelves. “Leeks we have year round. When they’re available locally we, of course, carry locally grown leeks,” says Shannon Szymkowiak, marketing and member services manager for the co-op. “But there are also wild leeks, also known as ‘ramps’ or garlic leeks, which grow everywhere wild, including behind a lot of garages here in Duluth.”
I know what Shannon says is true because a friend of mine discovered that much of his wooded acreage was covered with wild leeks. He gave me an entire grocery bag stuffed full of ramps, which I put to good use in a classic potato and leek soup. Not original - but a favorite of Shannon’s as well. Try making quiche with sautéed leeks or enjoy Shannon’s own creation “Fall in Duluth.” (You can even make it in the spring with ramps.)
“Ramps are one of my favorite vegetables because they appear early in the spring, right along with fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms,” Shannon suggests using wild leeks in place of green onion in any of your favorite recipes, although you should expect a slightly more garlic flavor.
Kathy Drue says that wild leeks can substitute for onions or green onions in any recipe. She makes a simple wild leek stock to freeze and use in soup making throughout the year. You boil one to two cups of leeks (depending on how strong you want the flavor) in seven cups of water for 10 minutes. Then blend the mixture in a blender, put it in a freezer-tight container and you’ve got stock for the future.
In this region, if you attempt to grow your own leeks, start your seeds inside in February or March and plan to transplant the seedlings at 10 to 15 weeks (depending on if we’ve had the last frost). Leeks usually require a long growing season of about 120 to 150 days, and a minimum of eight hours of bright sunlight daily. Some newer varieties require as few as 90 days to mature, but the longer need is a more likely bet in this neck of the woods.
Or you could get lucky and come upon a patch of wild ramps volunteering on your property. You’ve got to admit, it’s much easier when the leeks plant, transplant, weed and water themselves. Try looking behind the garage.
Classic Potato and Leek Soup
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 c. sliced leeks (about 3 large or 6-8 small, tender white and light green parts only; trimmed)
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
- 3 large red or gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 c. half-and-half
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
Heat oil and butter in a medium sized soup kettle over medium heat, then add leeks stirring often until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove about 1/4 cup of the leeks and set aside. Add garlic to remaining leeks in the kettle and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Increase heat to high. Add broth and potatoes and cook, covered, until potatoes are tender, roughly 10 to 15 minutes. Add half-and-half and salt. Working in batches, put soup in a blender set to purée. Divide soup among 4 bowls and top each with about a tablespoon of the reserved leeks.
Fall in Duluth Pasta
Shannon Szymkowiak of the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth created this recipe, which despite its name, is great in spring, too.
- 1 lb. small shaped pasta (fusilli, penne, bowties)
- 1 medium leek, white and pale green parts, sliced thin
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 c. butternut squash (1/2 large or one small), peeled, seeded & cut into 1-inch chunks
- 4 whole fresh sage leaves
- Olive oil
- 1 c. water plus extra as needed
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 2 Tbsp. half and half
- 1 c. water, reserved from boiled pasta
- 1/2 c. gruyere cheese, shredded
- 4 slices prosciutto, sliced into 1/4-inch strips
Cook pasta until al dente. Drain water, reserving one cup of the pasta water. Set aside.
While pasta is cooking, pulse squash in a food processor or chop by hand until coarsely chopped. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet. Add garlic, leeks and a bit of salt and sauté over medium heat until the leeks begin to wilt. Add squash, 1 c. plain water and 4 sage leaves. Cover & simmer until squash and leeks are tender (about 10 minutes) adding additional water a bit at time if needed until the squash is done.
Fry prosciutto until crispy but not burnt. Drain on paper towel. Set aside.
When pasta is done, drain then return to the large pot. Remove the sage leaves from the squash mixture and add butter and half-and-half until incorporated. Add the squash mixture plus the cheese, prosciutto strips and pepper until well combined adding some of the reserved cooking water if necessary to moisten. Season with salt and additional pepper to taste.
Juli Kellner hosts the “WDSE Cooks” series.