Down & Dirty

Down & Dirty: Ramps

By • April 13, 2012 • 12 Comments

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

Today we celebrate the too-short season of ramps, our vegetable of the week. As we wrote during our contest for Your Best Ramps, they have a sweet pungency that many believe trumps all others in the onion family. Fleeting as they are, now's the time to capture their fragrant bite.

1. Born to be Wild: Native to the northeastern US (though they can be found as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as Tennessee), a ramp is nothing more than a wild leek, just another member of the Allium family along with garlic, onions, chives, and shallots. The bulb has a pungent, garlicky-oniony smell; the leaves have a soft crunch like flower petals and a more deliciate onion flavor.

Most commonly, ramps love to grow in the rich, heavily shaded soil of a dense forest floor. They're one of the first plants to appear in the early spring, as the light, moisture, and temperature conditions reach a perfect balance for their growth.

When raised from seed, ramps can take up to 18 months just to germinate because they need alternating warm and cool temperatures to send up shoots. After breaking through the soil, ramps need 5 to 7 years of growth -- most of which happens during that sweet spot in spring -- before they can be harvested.

2. Popularity Contest: In recent years, ramps have become extremely popular -- the combination of a blink-or-you'll-miss-it growing season, its wild origins, and a unique taste has proved irresistable in farmers' markets and restaurants. It's hard to believe that in the past ramps were almost exclusively consumed by rural communities who welcomed them as the first taste of foraged green after a long, harsh winter.

And ramps are almost always foraged! Research into domesicated ramp harvests is ongoing, but the long seed-to-harvest time and finicky growing conditions make them difficult and costly to grow reliably. If you wait too long into warm weather, the leaves grow tough and the bulbs separate into cloves that will become next year's shoots. If you don't wait long enough, the shoots are too delicate to harvest and store.

In recent years, many have worried that the over-harvesting of ramps will harm their availability in the future -- after all, most of the ramps you see at market are sold with roots, which take up to 7 years to fully mature. Sustainable foraging is the solution -- harvesting only 10-15% of a patch of ramps in a given year gives the area a chance to regrow and replenish. Alternately, harvesting only the leaves of the plant means that the root will live to grow another batch of them, ensuring their availability for years to come.

For some ramp foragers, though, recommending sustainable practices isn't enough -- this man was blindfolded before being taken on a trip to gather ramps! Whether you plant them from seed and patiently wait for a harvest, or go out in the woods to find your own, it's good to know that ramps won't be going extinct any time soon.

3. In the Kitchen: There are two categories of ramp recipes: those that celebrate their glory in the moment, and those that bottle it up for revisiting all year long. Both winners in our ramp contest are in the second category: ramp pesto with walnuts and sweet-spicy pickled ramps. The first would look gorgeous swirled into a rich broth or tossed with pasta, and the second would be as welcome on a charcuterie platter as it would be garnishing a martini (a specialty at Momofuku Ssam Bar in the spring!).

If you're more of an impulse buyer than a saver, then look to recipes like Tom Hirschfeld's Ramp Stuffing. (Come to think of it, Tom has over half a dozen ramp recipes on FOOD52!) Our intern Laura Loesch-Quintin brilliantly brings together the early-spring trifecta of ramps, asparagus, and peas in a classic Spring Risotto, and on the lustier end of the spectrum is mrslarkin's Ramp Tramp Pizza with its gutsy pairing of bacon and barely cooked ramps. And in 2010, our senior editor Kristen interviewed a ramp seller who recommended grilling them!

It's clear that ramps aren't just a trend -- there isn't anything else that tastes quite like them. In a few weeks when we've had our fill they'll quietly fade out of the markets. Now's the time to enjoy them (responsibly) before starting the countdown to next spring.

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Tags: vegetable of the week, ramps, recipes, down and dirty, nozlee samadzadeh, special diets

Comments (12)

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about 1 year ago Tina Adkins

Only just stumbled over this, I have a question. Is ramps the same as wild garlic? I live in Sweden where we have a willd onion plant that looks just like that but I was told it was called wild garlic. It has a mild garlic flavor. It grows in my backyard and we only ever pick the leaves. We make pesto or just have it in a sallad.

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over 2 years ago semanticantics

Minnesota is rotten with ramps right now. Picked 5 today and am trying to transplant them into the garden.

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over 2 years ago JeccaD

I can't see if my first post posted, so I'm going to ask again - sorry if it's repeated. :) I pick the stalks but leave the roots and bulb under ground intact, yes? Is there a 'best method'?

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over 2 years ago JeccaD

We own about 6 acres, mostly wooded, and I've been wanting to use the ramps which grow by the thousands, for years! How do I get started? Pick them? I think I understand that I should leave the bulb intact in the ground?

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over 2 years ago Aliwaks

Grilled some last night, had them on grilled country bread slathered in soft creamy Spanish goat cheese, drizzles with romesco sauce so freakin' good.

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over 2 years ago xmascarol

In the southern mountains( W. Va, NC, etc, they have ramp festivals. Lots eat them raw. It is wonderful to walk through a ramp blanketed forest and smell them. Up here in northern Michigan they seem to grow in beech forests. I am getting ready to go harvest a "mess" of them. I like to make a chowder with them, and one year found whole lot of fresh water mussels (VERY tough) that had washed up in a bay of Lake Michigan. Gathered those and minced them in the blender, went across the road to the woods, gathered my ramps and we all chowed down on the Michigan chowder. I'm just getting through with gathering the dandelion greens before the flower as well as the tender wild mustard.

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over 2 years ago deanna1001

Just bought three bunches at the farmers market...destined to go into a vegetarian lasagne along with some spring garlic. Last year I froze small pellets of ramp pesto and loved adding them to all kinds of things, particularly barley. Hope to find enough to do that again this year. Thanks for the great overview!

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over 2 years ago nbragg

Ramps are big here in WV. We cut up the whole thing and fry them in bacon fat. Some people fry them in potatoes. Really good.

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over 2 years ago lindycindy

As a child growing up in Oklahoma, ramps grew wild in the fields behind our home. Did I understand the article correctly: it takes 5 to 7 years to harvest these?

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over 2 years ago nzle

Yes, it takes 5-7 years for a ramp seed to grow big enough to harvest! Where are you from in Oklahoma, lindycindy? I grew up in Stillwater!

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over 2 years ago mrslarkin

Mrs. Larkin is a trusted source on Baking.

Thanks for the reminder to go ramp-tramping!

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over 2 years ago Panfusine

yes, just picked up some (6 stalks to be exact) yesterday.. They're selling at 12.99 / lb..have a great paneer & pickled peppercorn dish waiting to incorporate ramps!