For more and more of us ramps are the harbinger of spring. Ramps, or wild leeks, are some of the first things to pop out of the ground, sometimes even when there is a light blanket of snow in the woods. And after this winter, a welcome sign that despite cold and lasting frozen precipitation, something will grow again.
They are in the allium (onion) family and share all the characteristics of that group. But they are different from those cultivated varieties in their wild smell and tender leaves. They have a garlic-y pungency that is hard to describe or forget. I had never worked with ramps before cooking in Chicago—a town whose name is derived from the Native American word for ramp. My chef and I walked in to “Rampfest” an annual fundraiser celebrating these foraged darlings; he looked at me and said, “Whoa, it smells like ramps in here.” And from now on, that smell is unmistakable and makes me so happy.
More and more ramps are available at the market or grocery store. To harvest them yourself, you’ll need a shovel and permission to go walking in the woods or other wild spaces. Search for long, ovular green leaves that look remarkably like Lily of the Valley. They often grow in crowns. With the shovel, push straight down next to the crown and gently wiggle the plants out of the ground exposing their tender pink stalks—ideally lifting them from below their root system. With the crown lifted bend down and pull no more than half of the ramps from the group.
Because ramps have such a short growing season, from first thaw until the trees leaf-out, it takes them an average of seven years to regenerate. They propagate in two ways. One, at the end of their season they will send up a pink flower that will send out seeds. Two, like other alliums, they will divide along their bulbs and regrow. This is why they are so often found in crowns. If you harvest the entire crown, there is no way for it to regrow and no way for it to send out seeds. Leaving at least half ensures that that crown as a chance for next year. At Bare Knuckle Farm, we also never harvest from the same section of woods two years in a row. Rotating your foraging spaces and leaving enough to protect the plant is incredibly important.
When ramps come out of the ground, they are muddy and have a gelatinous sheath around their bulb. For the best storage, knock the dirt from the bulbs but leave the sheath to protect the plants roots and keep the bulb hydrated.
To prepare for cooking, soak the ramps in a good deal of cool water. With a small knife, cut the roots from the bulb and slip the sheath from the base of the plant. This is a dirty process, why many people can’t be bothered and buy from the market. Store in the refrigerator loosely wrapped in paper towel and in a plastic bag. If you will not be able to cook them soon, cut the leaves from the bulb and store them separately. The leaves are very tender and will break down quickly, where as the bulbs will store for ages.
This time of year, I will use ramps anywhere that scallions or even onions are called for. While their aroma mellows as it is cooked, ramps have a strong enough flavor to pair well with fats and can stand up to the smoke flavor of the grill.
The following three recipes utilize those two contrasts to ramps—fat and smoke. The first, creamed ramps with pasta slowly mellow the flavor of the ramps. I have left it plain but often will add asparagus or morels or spring turnips or spinach as soon as they are ready.
The second recipe matches the strength of the ramps with the strength of the grill. The leaves become feathery and charred and the bulbs soften. They are the perfect accompaniment to any meat or topped with a poached egg or some cheese.
The third does just that– pairs ramps with eggs and cream. So there.
And according to our neighbor, Sharon, remember to pickle at least a bunch to garnish your martinis!
- 12 oz dried pasta, any shape will do but I prefer something small to catch the sauce
- 1 bunch ramps, about ½ lb
- 2 T butter
- ½ C white wine
- 1 C cream
- salt and pepper
- ½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
- toasted bread crumbs (optional)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil
- Clean ramps and separate leaves from the bulbs
- Thinly slice the bulbs
- In a sauté pan, melt the butter and add the cut ramp bulbs
- Season with salt and pepper and cook until translucent and soft
- Add the wine and reduce until almost dry
- Add the cream and bring to a gentle simmer allowing the cream to reduce until thick
- Cut the leaves into 1/8” ribbons
- When the water is boiling, add the pasta
- Drain the pasta when ready
- Toss together the creamy ramps, the raw leaves and parsley
- Taste and adjust seasoning
- Serve in shallow bowls and garnish with breadcrumbs if using
- 2 bunches ramps, about 1 lb
- ¼ C olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Clean the ramps thoroughly and allow the to dry completely. If the ramps are still wet when they hit the grill they will steam instead of roast
- Toss everything together and grill over the hottest part of the grill until the leaves are charred and the bulbs are slightly tender
- If the leaves begin to burn and the bulbs aren’t at all soft, pull the ramps to the side and let them slowly cook off the direct heat of the grill
- Serve with a runny egg or as part of a big vegetable platter
Feel free to add any number of other ingredients to the filling. I’m partial to roasted morel mushrooms or spinach. If left plain you will get a good kick of garlicky greenness.
- 1 bu ramps
- 8 eggs
- ½ C cream
- ½ C milk
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground pepper
- Heat the oven to 350F
- Separate the bulbs and the leaves of the ramps.
- Slice the ramp bulbs thinly
- Roll the ramp leaves into a log and slice
- Whisk the eggs, cream, milk, salt and pepper together
- In a medium frying pan heat a glug of neutral oil and a knob of butter
- Gently sweat the ramp bulbs until translucent
- Add any additional ingredients (morels or spinach and give a quick cook)
- Pour the egg mixture over the top and then sprinkle with the ramp leaves and submerge in the egg mixture
- Allow the bottom of the frittata to set and then transfer to the oven
- Cook until the center is just set but not super firm
- Remove from the oven and invert over a serving platter
- Serve warm or room temperature with a big pile of salad greens and maybe some hashbrowns