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.