By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
It's a blustery April day but there is glorious sun!! The snow piles are disappearing and the wind is cool (not another one of those bitterly cold arctic blasts). It's amazing to see bare ground again and to hear the water seeping and bubbling on the surface. I am very hopeful that spring is coming at last! The birds seem to agree as they are making a lot of beautiful music out there. I always enjoy hearing the red-winged blackbird, a welcome sign of the changing season! Everything is still recovering from the cold winter—there is not much color amidst all the brown and gray. I do see occasional little green sprouts as I walk around the yard and in the woods. I cherish the appearance of white snowdrops and purple and yellow crocuses, these hardy flowers that can withstand a covering of snow. I look forward to other sightings of new growth as spring unfolds at its own pace.
Meanwhile there are many tasty and tender wild spring edibles that we can enjoy as spring progresses: ramps, stinging nettles, dandelions, and fiddleheads, to name a few. Chives do not grow wild like the others but they are one of the earliest sprouting perennial spring herbs and they are so delicious! My mother had an herb garden right outside our back door. I couldn't wait to munch on the young chive shoots early in the season.
Enjoy some of these edible spring delicacies now as these plants come out of hibernation after a long cold winter. They have so much to offer nutritionally. Here I will focus on chives, nettles, and ramps. Susan Stanton, our staff herbal educator, will be presenting Dandelions as Food and Medicine in the Community Room on May 14, so come hear about that amazing plant at the Co-op.
Chives are one of the first welcoming signs of spring. If allowed to grow tall enough, they produce a beautiful purple flower that make an attractive addition to salads. They can also be used to make aromatic chive flower oil. Chives are a member of the allium family, along with onions, garlic, and scallions. The main difference between chives and the other members of the allium family is that they do not produce a bulb. Their strong aroma is due to the high concentration of sulfur compounds though they are much milder in taste than regular onions. They are a good source of vitamins C and A, potassium, and folic acid. Chives have been shown to benefit the circulatory system as well as the digestive system.
Chives can be grown easily in a pot if you do not have access to a garden. Chives lose their flavor when cooked so they are best used raw or at the end of cooking. Enjoy them in a variety of ways:
- Chopped and blended with butter or vegetable spread, they make a delicious spread for crackers or fresh homemade bread.
- Add them to scrambled eggs, omelets, or quiches.
- Use as a garnish for soups, sauces, meats, fish, or poultry.
- Add them to cottage cheese.
- Use them in green salads or grain salads or on freshly cooked new potatoes.
Stinging nettles are a common wild edible that grows in rich moist sunny areas, often alongside roads, rivers and streams, and in meadows too. They grow in clusters and at maturity can be five to eight feet tall but not so in the early spring. At this time in the season their leaves are bright green with a purplish hue, and spring is the best time to make use of this incredible edible plant. The leaves are pointed with jagged edges and have small stinging "hairs" on their stalks and stems. It’s hard to miss them since, true to their name, they sting, so you need gloves to harvest them. In spite of this their highly nutritious profile makes it well worth the effort to harvest them. Once you have washed and cooked them in a variety of ways—steaming, boiling, or sautéing—they lose their stinging properties, making them safe for consumption. Their taste is similar to spinach, and they offer a wealth of nutrients (vitamins C and A, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium) along with anti-inflammatory properties. The Wellness Department can provide you with more information on this potent nutraceutical.
Ramps, also referred to as wild leeks, are welcome harbingers of spring. They are found in the carpet of deciduous woods in rich sandy soil. I first started looking for them a couple years ago with neighbors who were kind enough to tell me where their source could be found. Many people are secretive about where they grow since they are well loved and in scarce supply. Being so delicious, we have to be cautious about demand and how many we dig up if we want them to survive.
In Canada ramps are so popular that they have limited harvesting to an annual maximum of 50 bulbs or plants per person, as long as they have not been taken from a national park. It is also against the law to sell ramps for commercial use in restaurants, etc. All of this legislation protects the tender ramp from being over foraged. It might be prudent for the U.S. to consider this as well if we want to have ample supply for everyone to enjoy in the years to come. When a ramp is removed from the forest floor before it goes to seed, its life cycle ends. Usually the seed on the ramp does not appear until the fall. If you are familiar with an area where ramps grow, do not pick a whole bunch of them at one site, instead pick a selected few in each area so that the ramps can continue to multiply and reseed.
The whole ramp including the bulb root can be used in food preparation. The ramp is a good source of vitamin A, fiber, folic acid, and potassium, and also provides some selenium and manganese. My favorite way to prepare them is sautéed in olive oil with other vegetables, or with potatoes or eggs, or simply by themselves.