March 22, 2022
by Merrie Witkin
As the snows of winter recede, most of us look forward to our favorite springtime rituals— walking in the woods and fields and seeking out early spring flowers, picking the first slim stems of asparagus, or foraging for ramps (a wild leek) and fiddlehead ferns. My spring ritual is collecting wild chives—in reality the shoots of wild field garlic (allium vineale), which look like chives.
One of the most reliable, and earliest, harbingers of spring, wild field garlic is ubiquitous in the Hudson Valley, especially in Ulster and Orange counties, perhaps due to the high levels of sulphur in the local soil (1). Like hellebores and snowdrops, their shoots are among the first to poke their heads up once the ground thaws before lawn grasses and woodland undergrowth green out and they often grow in clumps, making it easy to identify them. In fact these days they poke their heads up before the snow has even melted, maybe due to the erratic temperature changes that we have been having.
Wild garlic shoots tend to be finer stemmed than cultivated chives, with the same slender tubular grasslike structure. They have a wonderfully grassy, slightly oniony- garlic, herbaceous flavor. Once you know what to look for, you can see them everywhere—in open woodlands, fields and meadows, perhaps in your lawn before the grass comes up in spring. If you see them coming up in your flower beds you may consider them an annoyance, but don’t be tempted to pull them out yet; let them gain some height and then snip them. If you are not sure if your target is a wild garlic, pick a shoot and rub it between your fingers: it should smell mildly of onion or garlic. If it does not, then do not eat it!
When you forage for them, you should obviously avoid roadside clumps or areas where pets walk or herbicides and pesticides may have been applied. Once you have located a promising patch or two, snip off the stems towards the bottom with a pair of scissors or sharp shears. And when you have collected a good-sized batch, wash them in several changes of cool water to remove all vestiges of dirt. Dry them on a clean kitchen or paper towel. I lay the clean dried shoots on a towel on top of a sheet pan rack so they can finish with an air dry.
Chives are usually added fresh to dishes towards the end of their cooking or preparation to preserve their delicate flavor. You can use wild garlic shoots in the same way. They do not dry well, so over the years I have sought ways to capture and preserve that ephemeral flavor which, for me, is the very essence of spring. Through much trial and practice I have developed a recipe that provides a “twofer”—-what I call wild chive confit and oil—which allows me to both capture that essence in a flavored oil, and then use the shoots as a separate condiment.
What is a confit? While most famously associated with duck as the means of preserving the duck meat in its own fat, the term traditionally refers to any sort of preserved food and derives from the French verb “confire,” meaning to preserve. Chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, writing on the food blog Serious Eats, explains that the preservation takes place by slowly cooking food (when using oil, at a temperature of 200 degrees or less) in a liquid inhospitable to bacterial growth. Once cooked, the food is packed into a sterile container and completely submerged in the liquid, creating an impenetrable barrier and inhibiting bacterial growth. When refrigerated, a confit can last several months.
Wild “chive” confit and oil
Ingredients and tools
One large bunch of freshly harvested wild garlic shoots or chives, well washed and dried
2 cups of olive oil—use virgin or light olive oil, as opposed to expensive evoo, the
flavor of which will interfere with the delicate herbaceous flavor
Good sauce pan with a well fitting lid
Well washed or sterilized glass bottle and jar or container with lids
So, now that you have these wonderful condiments, how do you use them? Use the oil to add a subtle dimension to salad dressings and marinades, to dress pasta, on toasted bread with white beans for a wonderful crostini, or poured over fresh sliced ripe tomatoes with a pinch of salt. Use it in lieu of olive oil to make an herby mayonnaise, or as the flavored oil in a home-baked focaccia. Use the confit in scrambled and deviled eggs; mix with cream cheese and serve with smoked salmon, or mix with ground pork and soy sauce for an awesome Chinese dumpling stuffing. Add the confit to tuna and chicken salad and if, like me, you feel somewhat subversive, try adding some confit as an extra burst of flavor to homemade matzoh balls this spring. Think of using them where you might otherwise add onions, chives or scallions…..the options are endless.
Happy spring foraging!
1. As members of the allium family, garlic, onions and chives all rely on sulphur for their unique flavor, one of the reasons why the “Black Dirt” region of Orange County is so renowned for its onions.
2. Your saucepan lid may collect condensed moisture as the oil cools. You do not want this condensation to drip into the oil, so monitor this during the cooling process. Use the plastic wrap as a barrier or a silicone pot cover only once the oil and pan is cool to help minimize condensation.
There are any number of good books on foraging wild foods and what to look for.
An invaluable reference book is:
Uva, Richard, Neal, Joseph, and DiTomaso, Joseph, Weeds of the Northeast, 1997, Cornell University Press;
Meredith, Leda, Northeast Foraging, 2014, Timber Press;
Wong, Tama Matsuoka, and Leroux, Eddy, Foraged Flavor, 2012, Clarkson Potter;
Useful pocket guides to take with you:
Waterford Press’ Pocket Naturalist Guides Edible Wild Plants, and Foraging for Wild Edible Foods.