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On the first day of spring, we found ourselves bracing for yet another snowstorm. After a nor’easter hit in the first week of April, it seems like everyone I’m acquainted with is DONE with winter. The early signs of spring are everywhere, if you’re willing to look beyond the low temperatures, the slush, and the omnipresence of hard winter squash. The biggest indicator that spring is slowly approaching is by paying attention to the things growing out of the earth. This would be all of the green things, a hailstorm of alliums and flowering herbs.
Flowering herbs are pretty and all, but I, like so many others, look forward to the emergence of a very particular kind of allium. It looks a bit like a scallion only more delicate, a bit smoky and spicy in a delightfully garlicky sort of way.
I’m talking about ramps of course, and if you’ve been to Hudson Valley during their peak in April, you’d know that flocks of ramp devotees turn out by the hundreds to participate in festivals revolving around these special little bulbs. These upstate New Yorkers are not alone in their affection for them. People come out in droves to farmers markets everywhere, particularly in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. All in search of both the tiny, tender early ramps and the late season bulbous ones. Additionally, each state has ramp-centric festivals of their own. The Cosby Ramp Festival in Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the oldest and largest festivals in this country.
What are ramps anyway?
The allium tricoccum is basically a wild onion, their aliases being wood garlic, wild garlic, spring onion, or wild leek. Ramps cannot really be cultivated, so instead they are foraged. This has to be done with some degree of care, as they have been listed as a plant of concern due to over-foraging in Quebec, Canada, as well as some states in the U.S., including Maine, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. That should not keep you from enjoying the ones that show up at the markets or your CSA, as they have been harvested in a way that allows the preservation of these beauties.
When I find myself in the doldrums of the end-of-winter blues, I certainly perk up when ramps and their seasonal buddies, fiddlehead ferns and favas, start showing up at the market. I enjoy their unique flavor and fleeting availability. They’re also extremely flexible in their application, and I make all sorts of fun concoctions depending on my mood. My favorite is ramp butter, which I make in large batches and put in everything: spring pastas, sautéed vegetables, omelettes, folded into mashed potatoes, and anything else that calls for butter as a way to ratchet up the flavor profile.
It’s important to point out that just like a scallion, the bulb and the leaves have slightly different flavors and can be used for different applications. I like to use the bulbs for aforementioned ramp butter, since it takes advance of their milder, slightly sweeter flavor. The leaves tend to be bolder and spicier, which I find makes them ideal for a potent pesto or gremolata. These can also be folded into pastas, but I love finishing soups with them. A spoonful of ramp gremolata can really take a bowl of minestrone or even a white gazpacho to the next level.
For less labor-intensive applications, I sometimes find myself slicing them up and simply sautéing them into mixed vegetables or omelettes. Again, they are an easy substitute for leeks or scallions, so you can use ramps in their place in various applications. Sliced on top of a baked fish or roast beef is an excellent idea; Martha Stewart uses them to make a garlicky polenta.
If you find yourself visiting the farmers market over and over again to purchase these gems, and find yourself thinking, “How can I enjoy them year-round?” you can preserve them into pickles, which I defy you to not eat straight out of the jar, with your bare hands. Obviously pickling them will not provide you with that fresh, straight-from-the-woods flavor, but it certainly is a delicious way to keep them year-round. They also turn the most lovely blush pink as a reaction to the vinegar. I have been told that many a ramp devotee will make martinis with them, which I fully support, or even infuse them into liquor, such as vodka or gin.
The beauty of ramps, above all, are their versatility. I hope you will find a way to cook—or drink—these ephemeral alliums in a way that will make you long for spring, as I do.
Have you been lucky enough to score ramps yet this season? Let us know how you're enjoying them below!