Monday, April 20, 2009

A Scorched Earth Policy

The appeal of agriculture among adolescent boys usually begins and ends with one word: tractor. But that's not the only exciting and potentially dangerous farm tool, I am happy to report. Today I learned how to use a flame thrower.

Well, not exactly. It was really more like a large blowtorch on a stick, though calling it a "flame weeder" certainly sounds cooler. These flame weeders are our first line of defense against the inevitable onslaught of weeds (not to mention a lot more fun than a hoe).

Flame weeders work on the principle that weeds have a head start over our plants, especially with certain slow-germinating crops like carrots and onions. Our initial bed preparation disturbs the soil and wakes the weeds up from winter dormancy. In short order, they send tiny white shoots skyward, looking for light. Meanwhile, we seed our crop: beets, carrots, onions, or leeks. As soon as the first tiny weedlings appear, we strap on a propane tank and pull out the flame weeder. After removing all flammable material from the vicinity, we walk the rows, holding the flaming wand just above the lines of our seeding.

The idea is not that we incinerate the weeds--our pass is too fast, and many weedlings are still just beneath the soil's surface. Instead, our aim is to boil the water within weedling cells, which destroys the cell walls and kills the weeds. Our good seeds, however, just on the cusp of germination, are kicked into high gear by the sudden heat wave and soon come sprouting up through the (now clear) bed. Effective use of the flame weeder requires timeliness and a keen eye for detail. If you miss the window where weeds are starting but your crops have not, you'll be weeding the old fashion way.

Before you run out and buy a flame weeder for your home garden, be forewarned that a preliminary flame weeding will only kill the first flush of weeds. Inevitably, more will sprout amongst your crop, and you will have to remove them, whether by (wo)man or machine. Flame weeding gives you and your plants a head start, however, so that you can go ramp-hunting in April, rather than weeding the carrots.

Ramps are a wild relative of onions. One of the earliest members of the allium family (which also includes garlic and leeks), ramps are a bright spot in an otherwise bland winter diet, By now, our root cellar here at Caretaker is getting meager: a few celeriacs, a crate of potatoes, some onions. There might be some rutabagas lurking in some dark corner, but to give you a sense of the seriousness of our situation, we're out of garlic. Now, in fairness, we do eat like kings, thanks to a pressure cooker and lots of beans and pulses. But still. The only greenery 'round these parts are bean sprouts.

So I go foraging. Ramps prefer the dark, moist soil of a forest, thus I headed up the mountain on a sunny Sunday afternoon, following cow paths and occasionally ATV tracks. After a week of good weather, the ramps were flourishing in great green swaths under the trees. I had forgotten a trowel, so I dug down with a pointed stick and carefully pulled the white bulbs up out of the earth. Rather than decimating any one patch, I took my harvest in bits and pieces, until, satisfied with my walk, I returned home to cook myself dinner.

Ramps are a great substitute for leeks, in particular, though they will readily fill in for onions or garlic in a pinch. Like all alliums, they go wonderfully with eggs, cheese, and potatoes, all hearty late winter food. As many woodland plants in Massachusetts are yet to put out leaves, ramps are a good item on which to hone your foraging skills. Just look for the light green tapered leaves with a purplish tinge near the ground. Dig down and look for a small white bulb, and you are one step closer to supper.

Pasta with Ramps

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh ramps
cup extra-virgin olive oil, or half oil and half butter 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon crushed dried Italian red pepper (pepperoncino) or red pepper flakes
pound dry pasta, in any shape, such as penne, linguine or orecchiette Salt n' Peppa
cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese

Clean the ramps thoroughly and cut off any roots. Cut the bulbs off of the stems, slice the green leaves diagonally in half. Put a large pot of water on to boil.

Heat the oil in a skillet with 1/3 of a cup water over low heat. Add the bulbs and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until tender. Add the greens and saute for an additional 3-4 minutes, until wilted. By this point, the water should be mostly evaporated. While the greens are cooking, add salt and pepper to taste, as well as pepper flakes and any other herbs you enjoy (we added tarragon and a little bit of cloves).

When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to the directions. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauteed ramps. Serve with shaved parm.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I notice you don't give any hints about the location of your ramp stash. Are you a fungus hunter as well? I've been scouting potential morel and chanterelle spots.