When I was a kid, we ate plenty of veggies. My family usually grew a garden in the summer, and my grandfather, an erstwhile farmer, kept us in great supply of an endless variety of produce. But, it wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I tasted a ramp. In those days, you could only get them from one guy, a farmer named Rick Bishop, who seemed to have a corner on the season’s wild allium market.
These days, I’d imagine that Rick is pretty peeved. Ramps have become so popular, they can now be found at the springtime tables of practically every farmer in the city’s green market, and last week I spotted them at Whole Foods for a whopping $30 a pound.
Thirty bucks a pound! Wait, you know that they just grow wild in the woods, right? If you live anywhere in the vicinity of the Appalachian Trail or the northern Midwest you’ve likely walked through ramp patches your entire life. Chicago, in fact, takes its name from an indigenous word for ramp because of how thickly they grew along the rivers of the aptly named Cook County.
If you’re a green forager and want a little guidance on all things wild leek, there are lots of ramp festivals this time of year. This weekend marks Virginia’s Whitetop Mountain Ramp Fest, where locals and visitors chomp on garlic-y greens and dance to bluegrass. That sounds really lovely.
And if you’re really into ramps, like I am, and are tired of forking over the sky-high prices at your farmers market or grocery store, then you can grow them. Just lop off the bottom 1/2-inch of each stalk and place it in the woods, preferably near a water source, root-side-down. Cover them and water them and come back in a year. With any luck, you’ll have your own ramp patch before you know it. And when you have a pound of (free) ramps you want a way to use them up, make something like this ramp-heavy mac ’n’ cheese.
Ramp Mac ’N’ Cheese
1 pound ramps
1/2 stick unsalted butter
4 tablespoons flour
4 cups whole milk
Kosher salt and finely ground black pepper
1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Remove the bottom 1/2 inch from ramps and plant them in the woods where you’ll find them again in a year. Chop the white parts of the ramps and thinly slice the green leaves.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Heat the butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat and, then sauté the ramp whites with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper, until golden, about 6 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until it is incorporated, then whisk in the milk and bring to a boil, whisking. Boil the mixture until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes, then remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the ramp greens and mozzarella.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water, then drain and toss with the ramp sauce. Transfer the pasta to a 3 1/2-quart buttered baking dish. Toss the panko with the oil and sprinkle over the mac ’n’ cheese.
Bake the pasta until the filling is bubbling and the panko is golden, about 40 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes, then serve.