To say that wild leeks are pungent is a bit of an understatement.
One bite into the crisp white bulb releases a spicy flavor burst of garlic and onions cranked up on steroids.
One bite and everyone in any room you walk in afterward knows exactly what you've been eating.
To millions from the Carolinas to Canada, the appearance of the lily-like green leaves poking up through the dead leaves in late March-early April is the true sign of spring.
Wild leeks-which are actually called ramps-are very versatile in the kitchen and chocked full of nutrition.
Native Americans and early settlers praised wild leeks for their medicinal property. That reputation was well deserved. Wild leeks contain large amounts of vitamins C and A and filled with healthy minerals. They have the same cholesterol-reducing capacity found in garlic.
Wild leeks are native to the Appalachian Mountain region. They can be found growing in patches in rich, moist deciduous forests from Canada to Minnesota and down south to North Carolina and Tennessee.
Wild leeks are found in cool shady areas. The plants leaves emerge before the tree canopy develops in the spring.
Leeks have two or three bright green leaves and a small white bulb attached by a purplish stem. The entire plant is edible.
A papery wrapper leaf surrounds the bulb and should be pulled off. In addition, the bulb's roots should be sliced away.
Wild leeks can be prepared in a number of ways. However, simply eating them raw or in a dip is the most popular method of consumption.
"Ramps are one of those things that are best left alone to shine," said Todd Singleton, a native of Warren and head chef at the Town Club in Jamestown. "While I still love pickled ramps in a springtime martini, I prefer to use them in even more simple ways. I've used them in fresh pasta dishes, vegetable salads and even to finish a simple salsa."
While Singleton prefers a minimalist approach to preparing leeks, he isn't adverse to adding fire to them. Cooking mellows the spicy flavor of wild leeks, giving them more of a roasted garlic or scallion flavor.
"Sauteed in butter or grilled, they can elevate a plain steak or chicken," Singleton said. "Or try mixing some in your next batch of cornbread."
Leeks can be found growing wild throughout Warren County. People are allow to dig for leeks for personal consumption in the Allegheny National Forest. However, a permit is required in order to pick leeks for commercial use in the ANF.