Spring has officially sprung, and every day that passes we are a day closer to fresh produce that comes from Mother Earth. This is the season that many in the culinary world look forward to the most. After a long winter of relying on vegetables and produce shipped in from around the world, we will soon be able to add the supremely fresh locally grown items that make dishes so much better.
The first of these treats to appear is not in someone’s garden, but in the wild: Ramps!
What is a ramp, these little green wonders, you ask? A ramp is a North American species of wild onion, Allium Tricoccum, also known as spring onion, wood leek, wild leek, and wild garlic. Ramps are a bulb-forming perennial with broad, smooth, light green leaves , often with deep burgundy or purple tints on the lower stems, and a scallion like stalk and bulb. They're easily recognized by their 1 or 2 broad flat leaves measuring 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide and 4 to 12 inches long. Ramps have a combined flavor of onion and garlic, which is perfect to me as that is two of my four mainstays in seasoning. Add salt and pepper, and you are there. Ramps are full of vitamins and minerals and long considered to be a tonic to ward off winter malaise. Some consider ramps the “holy grail” of wild edibles.
It was Ryan Marino of Corkscrew Saloon that introduced ramps to me years back and I have been hooked ever since. It is considered a rare delicacy in many areas and the season comes and goes in a flash, so you must take advantage of it while it is here.
Ramp season is late winter to early spring. For us in Ohio, that means late April, early May. They grow in strong clusters in wooded areas, in higher elevations often. Due to their increasing popularity with restaurants and foodies, they are becoming harder to find. If you do find them and want to harvest them, consider doing it with conservation in mind.
Take a sharp knife and remove the leaves and stalks only, leaving the bulbs and roots in the ground if possible. Or leave the bottom third of bulb with roots in the ground. This practice will guarantee ramps in that spot next season and you will feel good knowing you did it the right way.
As I was returning from a recent trip to Florida, I stopped in wild wonderful West Virginia. At one of my favorite rest areas on the Ohio River, I was reminded that we are now in ramp season by a great display they had in the lobby. Apparently, West Virginia considers themselves the “ramp capital of the world” and ramps are celebrated throughout the state with numerous ramp festivals and dinners.
Ramps are prevalent in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains and Appalachian states. The display suggested that ramps are often cooked with potatoes in bacon fat or scrambled in with eggs and served with bacon, pinto beans, and cornbread. It also displayed photos of Ramp Pesto Pasta, Pickled ramps, Ramp Compound Butter, Green Salad with Ramp, Bacon, and Blue Cheese, Ramp Soup, and Crostini with Sauteed Ramps. All of those sound great to me. At a Ramp Fest in Mount Morris, Pa., they sell deep-fried batter dipped ramps. It turns out that ramp compound butter and ramp pesto are the best ways, other than freezing them, to save some ramps for later in the year, when the short season is past.
To make Ramp Compound Butter, you will need 1 lb. softened butter (or Ghee), 1 to 2 cups ramp greens, chopped, 2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice. Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth and store, refrigerated, in small containers. Use just as you would garlic butter.
What makes ramps the new trendy hip foodie thing? Why do restaurants go crazy for them? Probably a simple supply and demand thing. They are hard to find, like truffles, and have to be foraged, adding that sense of adventure to them, and have such a short season, combined with the fact that they taste like onions and garlic, are wild, and have limited availability. Maybe it is that they are the first signs of edible spring to emerge from the ground, adding the “anticipation” factor. Whatever it is, they are definitely the hot ticket.
Now my problem is where to find some!