Monday, April 11, 2011


We were looking for morels. I'm sure I should look for "morals," too, but last week when Alan Muskat lead another couple and I out into the woods near Barnardsville, he thought we just might find this coveted gastronomic treat, even though it was a bit early in the season for them.
As soon as we got out of his car at his friend's farm, he gave us a challenge: Find a mushroom. Alan is known as Asheville's Mushroom Man, the one who forages for chicken-in-the-woods, lobster mushrooms, morels and other gourmet treats for local chefs, and leads folks on mushroom hunts along the Blue Ridge.
And that's when I discovered how hidden and camouflaged wild mushrooms can be. If they had been a snake, I'd been bitten. Brown, floppy fungi, about ten in all, were just up under our noses and I must admit I don't remember their names. But he placed them in his basket along with some creasy greens and dandelion leaves, to add to his own sauteed dinner, foraged for "free" out in the wilds, as per his usual.
We trudged up a steep driveway to a house that he once lived in. It's being torn down now, its gardens abandoned, with no one to appreciate the bright yellow sundrop blooms. And that's when one of us spotted the gray morel nestled among fall's leftover leaves. Note "the." For that was the last of morels we were to see, despite our hopes.

A gray morel, one of three varieties found in the Blue Ridge

Alan led us up steep ridges and down to a valley floor where it took little to imagine that's where the early Native Americans would have camped, right beside the knobby tree that signaled the headwaters of a prominent creek. No morels, but we found acorns to taste, a spice berry tree just leafing out, and more cressie greens along a tiny stream. All of which we tasted. And that was my biggest "take-away" from this outing, that there are lot of things that grow wild that are there for the eating - IF you know what's what, and what's toxic.
Completing the seemingly miles-long hike up and down steep hills, we came upon the backside of the farm's livestock barn. As we stood talking, someone pointed at a "stand" of bright green across the hillside. We sauntered over. Were they daylilies left from someone's forgotten garden? Or better yet, were they ramps, that odiferous but tasty springtime treat?
Either way, Alan would eat them. Daylilies are delicious chopped and sauteed, he says. And if they were ramps, well, we had hit a motherlode, as there were several large gatherings of greens spread among the bare trees.

The beautiful dark green leaves of ramps remind you that they are a member of the lily family. Chewing on one, I could definitely taste the oniony-garlicky flavor that is unique to ramps. I laughed, remembering when one old mountain fellow told me that he had been sent home from school because of his highly odiferous breath after finding and eating a "bait" of ramps.

We had only knives with us, so with no way to dig up the bulbs, we could only harvest the leaves and stems down into the moist, loamy earth. And that's just as well. Ramps are being somewhat depleted from their natural growing habitats, so it's recommended that just the leaves be harvested, or in the very least to only take a few of the bulbs to ensure future growth.
Kneeling on the soft earth, carefully harvesting the pungent leaves, was a rather sensuous experience, one that I know has been repeated through the ages. I felt encased within that "circle of life," gathering food out in the wild. Alan just shook his head. It's just there for the taking, and it's his mission to educate the rest of us.

Alan Muskat, Asheville's Mushroom Man, harvesting wild ramps

I doubled bagged those leaves before putting them into my ice chest. I had a few days left before getting home, and didn't want to stink up the car, as I had once when given a few ramp bulbs.
So what to do with my ramps?
We had some leftover cooked potatoes, so I chopped up a few of the whole leaves and stems, and added them to the potatoes while they were being sauteed in olive oil. I replaced onions and garlic with the ramps while making shrimp and grits. We coated some leaves with olive oil, then placed them on the grill with a rack of lamb. My grillmeister misunderstood and they became charred but still tasty as a bed for the lamb.


And there's a great recipe for Rampalicious Chicken Soup in my book, THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK, which you will find below. Can't get ramps? Then substitute those strong smelling green onions you'll find at the farmers market during the spring and early summer. It's a bit involved, but we love this hearty soup.

RAMPALICIOUS CHICKEN SOUP from THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK, by Elizabeth Wiegand, Globe Pequot Press, 2010.

Hearty, spicy, and soul-satisfying, this chicken soup could almost be called a chili. It’s delicious, even without the ramps.

Strong-smelling and wild, ramps are dug from mountain coves during the early spring. A “bait” of them are sold at farmers markets or shared with neighbors. If ramps are not available, substitute spring onions, or just yellow onions with an especially strong taste. Palette Butler serves this soup for the lunch crowd at Veranda CafĂ© & Gifts, co-owned with husband Jeff in Black Mountain, NC.

1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds

1 or 2 bay leaves

12 black peppercorns

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup chopped yellow onion

2 15-ounce can red kidney beans

28-ounce cans diced tomatoes

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

1 15-ounce can beef broth

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

2 to 6 whole ramps (to taste), leaves and bulbs chopped

1 large sweet onion, chopped

½ to one 4-ounce can chopped green chilies, to taste

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon chili powder (or more, to taste)

1/8 to ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (to taste)

1 ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. Place chicken in a stockpot with the peppercorns, carrots and yellow onion. Barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Skim off any foam. Cook the chicken for at least 45 minutes to an hour, or until the chicken is cooked through and fork tender.

2. Remove the chicken from the pot. Using a fork and sharp knife, shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces and toss the bones and cartilege. Strain the broth from the stockpot and reserve.

3. Add the shredded chicken back to the stockpot. Add kidney beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, beef broth, garlic, ramps, onion and green chilies. Add enough reserved chicken broth for desired consistency, about 4 to 6 cups. Stir in oregano, cumin. chili powder, cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper.

4. Simmer for at least one hour or more to allow flavors to meld and onions to soften.

NOTE: Freeze any leftover stock for use later.

YIELD: 8 to 10 large servings


Anonymous said...

I'd like to be known as odiferous someday.

Anonymous said...

wish i could go on the hunt. sounds like great fun and a great way to "shop" for a meal