by Peter Martin
After many false starts, Spring has finally come to Wisconsin this year. Of course, that means many different things to different people. To me it means muddy paw prints throughout the house as dogs wade through the temporary pond we commonly refer to as our backyard. It means a resuming of relationships with our neighbors, who we often don’t see much during winter as the snow and cold keep us all inside. From a culinary standpoint, to me, it means the emergence of my rhubarb plants and the season’s first fresh herbs. It means fresh, local asparagus and choosing our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm for the season. But, to me, nothing says Spring like getting out, into the woods and foraging for ramps.
For the uninitiated, ramps are wild leeks. These wild alliums (a member of the onion, and thus the lily family) have a wonderfully sweet, pungent flavor that tastes somewhat like a mix of garlic and onion. They can be found throughout the US, east of the Mississippi, most often in the rich, sandy soil found near new creek, or along old creek beds. They appear soon after the last of the snow melts and for 3-4 weeks they dominate the landscape, before being overtaken by a myriad of other plants that make their home on the forest floor. During this time, their broad, bright green leaves rise above the other early spring plants announcing their presence to all but the most unobservant.
The broad, tender leaves transition into a slender, maroon colored stem which reaches deep beneath the soil to end in a small bulb reminiscent of a green onion. Ramps are easily identified and very few plants, this time of year, can be mistaken for it. One, the Lily of the Valley, is poisonous, but a quick sniff easily differentiates the two as only a ramp has that pungent garlicky odor that sends so many foragers into fits of ecstasy.
I’m not much of a forager. I don’t have the patience to learn how to identify all the wild foods out there or their poisonous counterparts so I usually just stick with ramps, fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms and wild berries. I rarely have any luck hunting for morels or fiddleheads, so ramps have become the one item I can rely on. My favorite spot is a short drive from my house, in a small wooded area, surrounded by farm land, and bisected by a little trout stream. I hike the woods in all seasons but really enjoy my springtime jaunts as I get the added bonus of getting to dig for ramps while on my hikes. There, in my woods, every few steps brings me to another bunch of ramps. I could pick for years and never worry about depleting the supply. Even so, I make sure that I never pick more than 50% of the ramps in any patch, thus ensuring that there will always be plenty in upcoming seasons.
Ramps have become rather trendy in the last few years, with chefs in top urban restaurants showcasing them during their short season. It is not uncommon, nowadays, to find them going for $15-25 a pound in both Chicago and NYC. This is because like morel mushrooms, ramps have yet to be cultivated with any commercial success so these cities rely on an army of foragers to keep the appetites for these wild leeks satiated.
If you are lucky enough to come across a patch of ramps you are in for a treat. The leaves are tender enough to eat raw and just a few, finely shredded can really round out a springtime salad. The bulbs and stems are best quickly sautéed and are often tossed with crispy bacon and fried potatoes, or mixed into scrambled eggs, but they find their way into all sorts of foods, especially at any of the numerous ramp festivals that happen every spring in the southeastern United States. The recipe below showcases ramps in all their glory, giving them a quick grilling to help tame their pungent flavor before turning them into a salad.
Grilled Ramp Salad
1 ½ pounds fresh foraged ramps
3 slices bacon, preferably thick cut
4 each hard boiled eggs
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. sherry vinegar
Freshly cracked black pepper
Clean ramps, trimming off the root end and thoroughly washing them to remove any dirt and sand. Thinly cut the bacon and render over medium high heat until brown and crispy. Drain. Peel and chop the hard boiled eggs. Place ramps, leaves and all on a medium low grill and cook, turning often until stems are tender and leaves are wilted and slightly charred. Place in a bowl and toss with olive oil and vinegar. Add bacon and chopped eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust, seasoning adding more vinegar if necessary.