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Field Garlic: A Sustainable Alternative to Ramps

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Field Garlic: A Sustainable Alternative to Ramps

February 21, 2023

What is wild, green, tastes like a garlic-laced spring, and heralds a new season of foraged flavor? Did you guess ramps? Or did someone whisper, “Field garlic…?” Field garlic it is (or wild chives, or lawn chives… it has many names). And, ramp fans? Field garlic’s bulbs may be smaller than native ramps’, but its leaves are giddily aromatic, bountiful, and easy to use and to preserve. And then there is the S-word: Sustainability. Weedy field garlic is the more sustainable of the two wild onions. It’s time for field garlic to be heralded at market with the same fanfare that the first ramps inspire.

Here’s why.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Field garlic growing in a deciduous woodland.

As more people are learning—and many have known for a while—ramps (Allium tricoccum and subspecies) are a relatively slow-growing native plant, distributed across the Eastern parts of the United States and Canada (similarly-named ramsons are Allium uva-ursi, native to Europe). While some wild ramp populations are healthy, and some ramp vendors do harvest and tend their own ramp habitats with care, many are vulnerable or threatened due to habitat loss and, increasingly, to commercial over-collection (and demand) for market.

(Necessary digression: There is an ideal method to collect ramp bulbs—just the most mature bulb in a clump, sliced above the root—yet few professional foragers practice it because it’s time-consuming. Better yet, only ramp leaves should brought to market; this is how ramsons are sold in Europe. Read more about the ramp issue, and how to cultivate them in our 2022 ramp story.)

Above: New Jersey grower Lani’s Farm sells field garlic in New York City.

Not many people appreciate that field garlic—Allium vineale, an introduced weed native to Europe— packs approximately the same punch as ramps in terms of flavor. But a few prescient farmers’ market vendors are beginning to sell field garlic. When you place a price tag on a plant previously taken for granted, or dismissed, it suddenly becomes very interesting and desirable.

Above: Washed bunches of field garlic for sale.

Field garlic is almost indistinguishable from chives. Its clumps of cylindrical green leaves begin to appear as autumn shortens days and brings colder nights. It persists through winter, before growing taller and very lush as spring progresses. Peak field garlic season is early to mid-spring. The plants grow in the sunshine of deciduous woods, in open fields, and in lawns. They  disappear (like ramps) into summer dormancy after sending up tall, tiny flower heads, like miniature ornamental alliums on a really bad hair day.

Above: Pungent field garlic flower buds make great pickles.

Field garlic can be cultivated, too, if foraging for the plant is unappealing. Growing the plants in a kitchen garden in the same way as chives makes for easy access to their more-strongly-flavored leaves and bulbs. I find it hard to feel guilty about growing a plant condemned as a weed, since in this case it tastes wonderful, and can hardly escape the confines of a bed (unlike invasive plants that are dispersed via fruits or wind-blown seeds).  And whose herb garden is stuffed with native plants, anyway? How a plant is perceived is everything.

To cultivate your own, transplant some field garlic from where you find it growing opportunistically. Grown in good soil in high shade or full sun, the plants will thrive.

Above: A beerhall-worthy snack—field garlic leaves on buttered toast.

Of course, field garlic leaves lend themselves to any chive-y way of eating, in the manner of a delicious flourish, like the obligatory shower of chives atop creamy vichyssoise. But they have an assertive quality that extends their usefulness, making the flavor of field garlic foundational in a way that chives would find hard to match. In this way field garlic can be the basis of a hundred stews, casseroles, soups, adobes (Filipino-style), braises, soups, rubs, and marinades. There is no cuisine it does not suit. The leaves can be substituted entirely for garlic or for onion.

Above: Warm silken tofu swimming in tamari, chili crisp, and field garlic.
Above: Salt-preserved egg yolks schmeared on sourdough with field garlic.
Above: Olia Hercules’ pampushky with a field garlic oil topping.
Above: Sardine-stuffed avocados with field garlic.
Above: Savory custard tarts with dandelion flowers and field garlic.
Above: Field garlic preserved in butter and in oil— both can be frozen.

One of the most satisfying and effective ways to preserve field garlic’s vivid green pungency, is by catching it in fat, the great disperser of flavor. I fold the chopped leaves into butter, to freeze in logs wrapped in parchment, and spin the blanched leaves in a food processor with a neutral oil, like avocado. In jars, frozen, field garlic oil keeps indefinitely, to be scooped out a spoonful at a time, an instant, emerald bouillon. Both methods are detailed in my book, Forage, Harvest, Feast—A Wild-Inspired Cuisine.

Above: Washed, foraged field garlic.

What about field garlic bulbs? The best environment for finding fat bulbs tends to be the deep litter of woodlands, where they are easy to pull. The largest leaves in a clump belong to the plumpest bulb, beneath the surface. At home, foraged field garlic bulbs benefit from an outdoor hosing-off to remove debris and soil (this is why farmers market bunches are very appealing: clean!). If, like me, you have no hose or serious outdoor space, fill your biggest bowl with water to wash and rinse them at least twice. When clean, peel off the outer skin, snip the tough part that separates the bulbs from the leaves, and then they are ready to pickle, to poach, or to be used in any way you would garlic, or shallots.

Above: Bagna cauda—poached field garlic with anchovies, for dipping.
Above: Field garlic leaf soup topped with radish leaves, field garlic, and spicy olive oil.

Vegan Field Garlic Leaf Soup

Serves 4

This easy, gentle soup is in season all spring. Serve piping hot, or chilled.

  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups finely chopped field garlic leaves
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
  • 6 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt

In a large pot warm the oil over medium heat. Add the field garlic leaves and cook for a minute, stirring. Add the potatoes and the broth. Increase the heat to high and bring the liquid to a brief boil. Reduce it to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.

Allow the liquid to cool a little, then purée in batches in a blender. Strain each batch through a fine mesh sieve for an ultra-sillky soup. Return the strained soup to its wiped pot to heat. Taste for seasoning, add enough salt to suit your palate, and add the lemon juice. (If you are serving the soup chilled, over-season it slightly).

For more recipes, see:

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