Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Winter Foraging - Field Garlic, Allium Vineale

PhotoLate in the winter each year, while it still seems much too early, the corn fields surrounding my home become awash in a preternatural green of wild field garlic. Passing from the roads, it doesn't look like much more than grass but, closer inspection reveals plants that look like tiny chives or scallions. These young plants have hollow lateral green leaves above the ground and below the ground is a slender white neck, sometimes streaked with purple) that gives way to a slightly bulbous white root. My sisters and I starting digging these plants out of the neighbor’s fields the first year we decided to grow produce. We thought they were wild onions initially, and made batch upon batch of sweet oniony pesto with them. Looking back, perhaps it was foolish of us to eat something we hadn’t positively identified but, it was fairly obvious from the odor and appearance of the plants that they were members of the Allium family. Allium is the plant genus that onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots come from and these plants have quite a few wild cousins that are both edible and delicious. Wild onions are actually a rare occurrence in agricultural fields and what we mistook for wild onions is actually a species of wild garlic called Allium vineale. The common names of Allium vineale are field garlic, wild garlic, and crow garlic. The term wild garlic is a rather generic term and could be used to reference a number of wild Alliums.

Wild garlic seemed like a miracle to us when we first discovered it. It was gorgeous (after a good scrubbing), it was delicious, and it was abundant. We dug, cleaned, and sold several thousand bunches of it that first year we were farming. While we struggled to learn how to grow good food, care for our crops and efficiently manage our fields to get viable yields (i.e. produce that was not field-stressed and bug eaten) there was an abundant source of food thriving all on its own in the fields next to ours. It’s a contrast I still think about often when I am out in the fields battling “weeds”.

Few farmers share my fondness for field garlic.  Field garlic is not native to the United States and is listed as an invasive species in our neighboring state of Illinois. As a “pestilent invasive weed”, it’s rather hard to eradicate from agricultural fields. Tilling often spreads bulbs rather than eliminates them and bulbs can lie dormant in fields for years before producing plants. Field garlic clusters reproduce not only through their underground bulbs but also through aerial bulblets that contain seeds. It can be a huge pest for grain and livestock farmers. Wheat growers are docked on the price of their grain if their harvested crop contains these seeds or bulbs as they will taint flour with the essence of garlic. Dairy farmers have their complaints about wild Alliums too. Cows that forage on too many garlicky plants give milk with an unpleasant garlic flavor and odor. The same is said of meat from livestock who have eaten too many wild garlic or onion plants. I can commiserate with these farmers up to a certain point, I too have my share of undesirable plants invading my considerably smaller operation, but being a produce grower and a food lover, I can’t help but delight in any food that insists upon growing itself. 

Field garlic is a hardy winter perennial, appearing in the fall and growing slowly over the winter so that it is one of spring’s earliest and most versatile wild food offerings. The baby garlic found in late winter can provide a creative cook with loads of inspiration. It is delicious as a creamed vegetable, in soups, or pureed into a salad dressing. If you are serious about your food and willing to put in the tedious work of cleaning baby wild greens, it is especially good when collected as tiny as possible and used as something akin to a micro green onion. As it matures into springtime, it can be used in almost any recipe you would use garlic, onions, scallions, chives, or shallots. In late spring or early summer it develops a hard scape and a hard purple bulblet that resembles a purple flower with tiny chives growing off of it. The seeds that make up the bulblets can be pulled apart and added to salads or vinegrettes or really anywhere you can include them raw. Cooking them the seeds, however, seems to give them an unpleasant bitterness.
PhotoField garlic has a long season and all parts of the plant are edible. I use it at every stage of its growth before it dies out in the early summer. I’ve read claims that this species has a bitter aftertaste, I don’t find that to be the case at all. The greens, when young and tender are utilized like scallions or chives; clipped into salads, floated in hot soups, paired with potatoes or other starches….  Field garlic can be used as a “pot green” too with other uncultivated spring greens such as wild mustard and other wild Brassicas, curly dock, dandelion greens, dead nettle and henbit. They also add great flavor to a medley of grilled or roasted vegetables or cooked alone this way, simply remove the roots and brush the rest of the plant with olive oil, cook until tender and slightly charred. As far as the bulbs goes, I know some people separate the toughening layers and pull out the tiny cloves to work with. Supposedly, they are all kinds of sweet and delicious roasted that way, but I just haven’t been interested enough in working that hard to try it.  I slice them like I would the bulb of a green onion and remove the papery layers my knife doesn’t easily go through. I also toss the bulbs out sometimes and just go straight for the greens depending on what I’m making.

Field garlic not only grows in grain fields, but also in pastures, meadows, lawns, gardens and in waste places too. Wild garlic is not hard to spot, the scallion-like greens are usually quite a bit taller than the spring grass. Sometimes I find I can gently tug the more mature garlic out of the ground without breaking it. The dampness of the ground in springtime usually makes this an easy job. Other times, they need to be dug out. A small garden trowel works just fine for this. Cleaning wild garlic might be the most tedious thing about it. The roots are generally very dirty and the browning on the tips of the greens needs to be cut away. Wash away as much mud from the plant as possible before cutting the roots off. The outer layers generally look quite rough, but peel them back and the inner garlic bulb is usually in pristine condition. Wild garlic does not store especially well but wrapped in clean, damp paper towel it should keep for close to a week.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pear shaped puffball mushrooms out in the woods. If I'm not mistaken, these always grow on wood. October 10, 2012

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not sure what I'm doing with 65 very frost sensitive Thai Red Roselle plants, but I just couldn't resist... Heat the start house all winter or move them all inside?

Shawna picking puffball mushrooms on the farm's landing strip.

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30 .lbs of elderberries cleaned and sorted.

Foraging elderberries.

Sumac can be ground and used as a spice. It can also be seeped in cool liquid to add a lemony flavor to beverages.

Retro pots we found in the barn. Thank God grandmothers never throw anything away.