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The Exotic Wild Leek

By Clifford Mark Sakry

 For those who wander the greening Minnesota woodscape in late April or May, the consummate harbinger of spring is surely the morel.  It appears suddenly—almost mysteriouslyunderfoot.  Its season, though short-lived, presents a welcome and encouraging interlude between spring and summer.  Its wide popularity among foragers is perhaps due to its early appearance, as well as its choice edibility, because it offers many the best, if not the very first, excuse to venture into forests which are only beginning to unfold their summer regalia.
    The morel's springtime predecessorssuch as the pasque flower, bloodroot, violet, and wood anemonemay, of course, have already been noted by the devoted forager.  But one more member of the early season, and perhaps the most forthright companion to the arrival of the morel, is Allium tricoccumthe exotic and delectable wild leek.
    What makes the wild leek especially appealing to the spring forager, in addition to its wonderful edibility, is its superb beauty.  Because it is a perennial herb, it is one of the first plants to emerge from the forest litter and is thus hard to miss.  It adorns the forest floor either singly or in clusters, usually in moist shady areas, although it is not unusual to find it in sunny open spots near bloodroot or violet.
    A single plant consists of a pairoften a tripletof long, elliptical, lance-shaped leaves up to twelve inches high.  Although it belongs to the lily family (Liliaceae)as do its "wild onion" counterpartsthe wild leek is more reminiscent of some strange, exotic woodland orchid.  Its leaves extend gracefully upwardthen bow modestly at the tips, as though to curtsy as you walk past.  It is astonishingly green against the dull backdrop of elm or maple litter left from the previous autumn, and it possesses a distinctive reddish stem near its base.  Often, it is this red stem which betrays the leek's presence to casual passers-by.
    Unfortunately, the leaves of the wild leek wither with approaching summer, and they fall away completely by the time June arrives, leaving only a thin naked stalk which grows as high as twenty inches before a creamy-white globe of blossoms appears at its tip.
    The wild leek displays little similarity to its larger domestic cousin, Allium porrum (the common garden variety).  The bulb of the wild leek seldom grows more than 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, and its bright magenta stem is always less than pencil thin.
    Yet this charming woodland herb should not be underestimated.  It is superior in flavor to any variety of either leek or onionwild or domestic!
    While it is reported that the Chippewa Indians used the wild leek as an emetic, for medicinal purposes, this is a peculiar contradiction, for eating the wild leek, raw or cooked, induces no "ill" effect whatsoever.  On the contrary, the entire plant is more than simply edible:  it is utterly delectable.
   The succulent bulb is perhaps the most versatile part of the plant.   Most certainly, it is at least as versatile as the onion.  It can be used in place of onion for any recipe, anddue to its herb-like savorinessone can easily get by with using one-third less.
    It is readily dried (younger bulbs can even be dried whole); it can be pickled using any basic home pickling recipe; and it can be pressure-canned, with virtually no loss of flavor.  (Canning stock itself can be used for making soups, casseroles, or simply in place of water for many recipes.  Why waste it?)  It is easily transplanted to home gardens, as well.
    But there is hardly a more apt use for the wild leek than eating its savory bulb fresh.  Serve it whole with dip on a relish tray, alongside meat on a platter … or pluck and eat it directly from the ground!
    Wild leeks will stay fresh for over a week in the refrigerator.
    The leaves provide lavish greens for any salad.  Their delicate flavor surpasses even that of scallions or chives.  Like chives, they can be chopped and dried, then used as an oniony herb seasoning.  And wild leek leaves can usually be found unblemished by worms and insects, due to their early arrival in the spring, which lends to exceptional culinary use as well as natural beauty.
    When foraging wild leeks, carry a cloth bag (like a muslin nail pouch) and a dandelion digger.
    Because the wild leek tends to be rather tenacious when attempting to pull it from the ground, a long knife or dandelion digger works best to free it.  The root hairs which grow radiantly from the tip of the bulb (as on the onion) are most troublesome, and must be cut if the bulb is to be pulled free without breaking off the stem.  This technique prevents unnecessary digging or disturbance to surrounding plants.
    A cloth bag lets your fresh edibles "breathe" a little easier; plastic bags will do fine but tend to promote wilting, due to trapped condensation, especially on sunny warm days.
    While foraging, of course, keep an eye out for other woodland edibles which might make worthy companions to the wild leek on the dinner table.  The morel mushroom is without question among the most noble springtime delectables.  But don't pass up the common violet, or watercress, which make excellent salad fixings.  The violetwhether common blue, yellow, or whiteis entirely edible, blossoms and all!  And it provides for an unusually pretty salad.  Watercress is indeed a natural, since it is found in low woodland watersheds near where the wild leek is often encountered.
    While the wild leek is a true native to Minnesota, its range is extremely broad:  Including Quebec and the northern Great Lakes, it extends southward along the eastern seaboard of Canada to Maryland, then westward from Virginia, through Tennessee and Illinoisto Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  In fact, in West Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains, where its colloquial name is "ramp," it is celebrated with an annual spring festival where participants engage in a lively foraging spree called a Ramp Romp.  Such frivolity over this wonderful herbno matter where!is certainly understandable.
    YetMinnesotans can enjoy the added pleasure, as few states can, of stalking the wild leek as a native companion to the morel … with watercress, woodland violets, and perhaps a few more sundry garnishments on the side.  

Mark Sakry is the son of the late Cliff Sakry, who served as the MCF's executive secretary in the 1950's and originated Minnesota Out-of-Doors. Mark lives in Brimson.

Wild Leek Recipes

Here are a few recipes which may convert devotees
of the onion … to lovers of the exotic wild leek:

May Basket Salad
1 bunch leaf or head lettuce
Bulbs and leaves from 1 dozen wild leeks
1 cup violets, whole blossoms and leaves
2 cups whole watercress
A few additional wild leeks and violets to garnish

Tear lettuce into bite-size pieces.  Slice bulbs and tear leaves of wild leek into pieces.  Toss with whole violets and watercress.  Garnish with additional whole leaves, bulbs, and blossoms to decorate.  Excellent with either creamy or tangy salad dressing.  Serves 6.

Stuffed Morels With Wild Leeks
6 large morel mushrooms
3 Tbs. butter, melted
12 wild leeks
1/2 cup diced ham
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper

Steam morels until limp (about 3 minutes).  Slice lengthwise along one side.  Slice bulbs and chop leaves of wild leeks; mix thoroughly with butter, ham, and cheese.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Stuff mixture into morels; close-up mushrooms and place in buttered casserole.  Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.  Serves 6.

Creamed Wild Leek Soup
2 cups wild leek bulbs, halved lengthwise
1 cup wild leek leaves, chopped
1/4 cup butter
3 Tbs. flour
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Minced wild leek leaves

Saute wild leek bulbs and chopped leaves in butter over low heat.  When tender, stir in flour, mixing well.  Slowly whisk in 6 cups of broth then simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Whisk together egg yolks and 2/3 cup cream until blended; slowly whisk mixture into soup, a little at a time, then raise heat and bring to a near boil.  Stir until thickened.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Whip remaining 1/3 cup cream; top each serving with a generous spoonful then garnish with minced wild leek leaves.  Serves 6.

Wild Leek Pie
9-inch unbaked pie shell
3 cups whole wild leek bulbs
1/4 cup butter
4 large eggs, beaten
l cups sour cream
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Saute' wild leek bulbs in butter until golden and tender.  Whisk together eggs and sour cream in large mixing bowl; stir in leek bulbs then salt and pepper to taste.   Turn into pie shell.  Top with Parmesan cheese then sprinkle lightly with paprika.  Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes then reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 30 minutes longer (or until pie crust is golden brown underneath).  Serves 6.

Copyright C. Mark Sakry 1986

Wild Leek Photos and Captions

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