I have always loved to cook; even as a teenager when most considered cooking a chore or an oddity, before food fads and ‘foodies’. In junior high school I actually anticipated home economics class in the kitchen. Now there are expensive culinary schools and endless cooking demonstrations.
We had never heard of ramps in those days. In fact, I only recently learned of them in the last few years. It has been with the recent food movement of ‘eat what you grow’ that ramps have come on the scene to be noticed. I collect cookbooks and not a single one has a recipe or even mentions ramps. I have never seen them in the grocery store but ramps are abundant in the spring at farmers’ markets and are actually available online (who knew?). Blink and you will miss them as there is a narrow window of opportunity for availability due to their popularity and short growing season.
Ramps are a perennial wild onion, also known as wild leeks. They have a very strong odor and flavor, similar to a combination of garlic and onion. The entire plant is edible once washed. They grow in the forests of eastern North America from South Carolina to Canada and are harvested from there. There is no such thing as a commercial ramp farm! They are a lovely vegetable; resembling a scallion with a shiny white bulb, purple stem and broad green leaves.
Unfortunately, ramps are often harvested incorrectly. They grow in strongly rooted groups of bulbs and should not be pulled out by the root. Rather the dirt should be moved away from the base of the plant and cut with a sharp knife above the root so that the plant can regenerate once again. Due to the overabundance of foragers for these culinary delicacies in some parts, ramps are illegal to sell in the province of Quebec and considered a species to watch by conservationists in the northern United States.
Ramps were once considered “poor folks food”. Chefs vie for them now, especially in upscale restaurants in larger cities. In fact, my friend Sebastiian used to work in New York City as a chef and tells a story about ramps being sold out quickly in the farmers’ markets and a friendly competitive race among some chefs as to who would have ramps on their menu first! Our own Ian Campbell has prepared these beauties on his menu at Bistro Poplar here in Cambridge, MD as well. Love them!
But not all people adore these alliums as I do. They are very pungent and not a good food to have on a date. Vampires beware. Eaten raw the perfume can be emitted from your body for a long time. My dear friend Miriam recently returned from North Carolina to tell a tale of a woman she met there who used to eat them as a young girl prior to going to school so that she would be sent home due to her ‘aroma’! True – a pretty funny way to skip school!
While researching ramps, I discovered that there are many festivals held each spring in the South. It is not just the ‘big’ city populations that love them. Thousands of travelers come from afar to these towns to sample foods featuring this vegetable. Some festivals feature cook-offs (how about a ‘Throwdown’ Bobby Flay?) and ramp-eating contests. In Cosby, Tennessee one of the oldest and largest ramp festivals is held annually and features the crowning of a young woman as “Maid of Ramps”. Now that’s an honor!
For your first taste it is probably safest to try ramps roasted, grilled or sautéed – tones down the flavor. Interestingly, they are a good source of iron and vitamins A and C. Typically they are prepared with potatoes and eggs but there are a multitude of recipe ideas out there. My personal favorite is an appetizer that I prepared for a dinner party. I made it my own after reading a recipe in one of the many food magazines that I subscribe to. Be adventurous and prepare it ~ just make sure everyone eats it!
Ali’s Pickled Ramps and Pancetta on Cheese Crostini
• 1 cup cider vinegar
• 2 T. sugar
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 t. crushed red pepper flakes
• 2 T. kosher salt
• 8 ramps, rinsed, cut into ½ inch pieces of bulb, stalk and light green part of leaves
• 3 crushed garlic cloves (as if the ramp isn’t enough flavor!)
• 1 cup ricotta cheese (may substitute mozzarella cheese)
• 2 T. olive oil
• Fresh ground pepper and salt
• ½ lb. pancetta, cut into ¼ inch cubes
• Fresh baguette, cut into ½ inch slices
• Fresh chopped parsley or chives (optional)
1. Combine vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, red pepper and kosher salt. Bring to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt.
2. Remove the brine from the heat, add ramps and garlic.
3. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours (may refrigerate for up to a week).
4. Drain the ramps, removing bay leaves and garlic (it has now fulfilled its destiny) reserving 3 T. of the brine.
5. In a bowl, mix ricotta, if using, and 2 T. olive oil, salt and pepper. If using mozzarella, skip this step.
6. Cook pancetta over medium heat, stirring until browned and crisp, about 8 minutes.
7. Remove from the heat and add the reserved brine, scraping any browned bits.
8. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Brush the bread with oil and bake approximately 5 minutes until golden brown.
9. Spread each piece of crostini with the cheese and top with ramps, pancetta and pan juices.
10. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.
As I mentioned earlier, I could not find any ramp recipes in my cookbooks. My Google search brought me to some interesting recipes mostly from Bon Appetit that I will surely attempt to make next spring if I can’t get ramps before June. Examples are Ramp and Mushroom Tart, Ramp and Buttermilk Biscuits, Pasta with Ramp Pesto and Scrambled Eggs with Ramps, Morels, and Asparagus to name a few. One recipe I must share is a version I created from the restaurant DOC in Oregon. Apparently ramps grow in the wild there as well.
Risotto with Sautéed Ramps
Here’s a word about preparing risotto. Purists will cringe about preparing risotto in the oven as it is technically not the traditional Italian method but Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, has a foolproof recipe in one of her cookbooks and also featured it on one of her shows. Save yourself the time and elbow grease of constantly stirring the rice over a hot stove for 45 minutes. This method works!
• 1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
• 5 cups simmering chicken stock
• 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• ½ cup dry white wine
• 3 T. diced butter
• 2 t. kosher salt
• 1 t. fresh ground pepper
• Zest and juice of 1 lemon*
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the rice and 4 cups of stock in a Dutch oven.
3. Cover and bake for 45 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven, add remaining cup of stock, cheese, wine, butter, salt and pepper, and lemon stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes until rice is creamy.
5. Add the cooked ramps. Sprinkle with more cheese, if desired. Serve hot.
• 1 T. butter
• 1 t. olive oil
• Cleaned and trimmed ramps, cut into ½ inch pieces, including most of the greens
1. Melt butter and oil over medium heat in a skillet near the end of the cooking time for the risotto.
2. Add ramps and gently sauté for 5 minutes until light golden brown but still green.
3. Add to risotto. Stir to incorporate mixture. At this point you may need to add more seasoning or even a touch more stock for a smooth consistency in the rice.
*Lemon adds a bright tang to this dish and ‘cuts’ the strength of the ramps. My friend Barbara Colello recently emailed this tip about freezing whole lemons. Place a washed whole lemon in the freezer. Once frozen, you can grate the entire lemon over any food of your choice. No wastage, just 5-10 times more pure Vitamin C and great flavor! Thanks Barb!
Hustle to the farmers’ market, travel to a festival and sample the it vegetable of the season!