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The world of trendy food is a fast-paced and fickle one. Big ticket items, like ancient grains and street food inspired dishes, are popping up in menus left and right. One hit item you won’t want to miss? Ramps.
Ramps (allium tricoccum) are a type of wild onion native to the moist deciduous forests of the Northeastern United States. Also called wild leeks, these plants have a taste similar to a combination of onions and garlic. (Ask any chef, and they’ll tell you that onions and garlic go together like peas in a pod.) On the onion spectrum, ramps have a stronger taste than the typically mild leeks, and have a more robust garlic flavor.
These pungent plants are so popular, festivals are held in celebration of their many culinary applications. Likewise, foraging for ramps draws increasing crowds to the Northeast every year. Ramps typically sprout in early March or April and continue to grow until around June, when the temperature rises and the leaves die back.
If foraging for ramps sounds like an activity you’d like to try, start right after the snow disappears, when plants just start growing back. Look for their broad, light green leaves and deep purple stems poking out from the forest floor. Check to make sure you have the right plant by tearing off a leaf and sniffing for the onion scent. This is to ensure that you don't accidentally pick the near identical, but highly poisonous, lily of the valley. The plants are in the same family, so they share many characteristics. However, lily of the valley leaves are scentless. Lily of the valley also has tiny, bell shaped flowers along the stem, while ramp blossoms are clustered at the end.
While many acknowledge that the peppery, garlicky flavor of ramps really kicks up dishes, their popularity has led to a sharp decline in their wild population. At the aforementioned festivals, nearly all the ramps used are foraged locally. Should you go hunting for some ramps of your own, don’t get greedy, and follow sustainable harvesting methods.
Once you have located a patch of ramps, use a trowel to gently remove dirt from around the top of the bulb. Using a small knife or scissors, carefully cut away a few of the leaves, leaving the bulb in the ground. Finish by covering the bulb with soil. Ramps have a strong flavor, so don’t take more than you can use in the next few days. While it is possible to preserve them, they’re best fresh.
Besides tasting great, ramps have the added benefit of being high in vitamins A and C. While their strong scents may dampen your desire, pinch your nose and forge ahead. Taking the time to incorporate ramps into your dishes will be a rewarding culinary adventure. To get started, consider the recipes below.
This easy-peasy recipe is extremely versatile, and will circumvent ramp’s tendency to quickly spoil. Pickled ramps can be used like standard pickles in sandwiches or salads, or used adventurously to pep up fish and grilled meat.
Simply heat vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a saucepan, and add some bay leaves, mustard seed, allspice and red pepper. Once all the salt and sugar is dissolved, pour the hot brine over your ramps. Screw on the lid, and allow the jars to cool. Refrigerate for at least three weeks before eating to ensure the best flavor.
For those looking for more of a challenge (and an immediate reward), poached eggs with ramps are the way to go. Make this recipe on a lazy weekend morning, when you have a lot of time to invest.
Start by sautéing your ramps in some butter until they’re soft. Then bring two inches of water to a simmer, and mix in some vinegar. Gently slide an egg into the water, and cook until the whites are just set. Remove, and place on top of toast spread with goat cheese and the ramps. Finish it off with some olive oil, salt and pepper.
For those who don’t want their hands held, grilled polenta with ramp chimichurri will be a rewarding culinary challenge. Make some polenta with cornmeal, stock and coconut milk, and season it with olives, oregano and honey. When it’s done, pour it into a pan to chill. After it’s chilled, thickly slice and grill until golden and crisp on each side.
To make the chimichurri sauce, combine ramps, parsley, cilantro, vinegar and olive oil in the food processor, and pulse until blended but chunky. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Serve with the grilled polenta.
Give these recipes a try, and you’ll see for yourself why ramps are so popular. Because they grow in the wild, foraging for them can even be its own reward. Just remember to harvest sustainably to keep the population strong for years to come!
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