Just last week I was out enjoying an early spring walk in the woods with my family. Now early spring is marked in the North East, not by a carpet of polychromatic flowers, but by the receding of the permafrost and the ritual breaking of the leaf cover by a few tenacious perennials. Still it is exciting to see nature’s slow reclaiming of the forest floor after so many months of snow, ice, and mud. But not so exciting that you would want to drop to your knees and start digging in the topsoil, unless of course you found yourself a bouquet of ramps – which is precisely what I found.
When I speak of ramps, I am not talking about skate-park super jump ramps, or truck-bed loading ramps, I am speaking about the wild leek (allium tricoccum) which is simply referred to as a “ramp” in parts of the country fortunate enough to have them. The appeal of ramps is not so much in their beauty (although seeing anything vital and green after months of snow can be a decidedly beautiful thing) but in their distinct and sharp taste, which is miles above its domestic cousin, the leek. The ramp, like its lily cousins, grows in shaded, and somewhat damp, woodland conditions and grows up to 12 inches tall. But unlike the lily, which at times can be poisonous, the ramp is not only delicious, but nutritious as well (note: if you have any question as to whether you are picking a ramp or a lily, crush one of the leaves between your fingers. If it smells like onion, you are in good ramp shape and can forage with confidence).
Like anything plucked from the wild, ramps should be thoroughly cleaned before consumption (and I would personally suggest not eating them raw, as they tend to be a little harsh in the raw form). Once cleaned of their natural dirt and detritus, ramps can be lightly sautéed and mixed with eggs or pasta, or some people opt to pickle them for enjoyment later in the season. While experienced foragers will trample over a patch of ramps just to gather one prized morel mushroom, ramps are distinctly sweet and sublime in their own right.
Ramps are well known in the culinary community, not only as one of the first signs of spring, but as a rarified, and highly seasonal, ingredient that deserves showcasing. Ramps can only be grown in the wild, never domesticated, and therefore you will have great difficulty locating them at your local grocery store (although a few natural food stores are known to carry them from time to time). Chefs and food lovers tend to fall over themselves to get, and praise, ramps during the spring season, so much so that some critics suggest this is much ado about nothing. But considering the minimal effort, and the maximal gain, one receives from foraging and preparing one of the seasons first, and most glorious, wild foods; you really cannot go wrong (unless you forgo the whole foraging experience and opt to pay up to $8 for a handful of ramps).
Are you a ramp fan, or are they just glorified scallions in your mind? Are there other wild foods that deserve more esteem? Do you have favorite ramp recipes that you are willing to share?
*image courtesy of Apple Pie, Patis, and Pate