Jane Says: It’s Time to Eat Ramps
If it’s spring, people are going crazy for ramps. I suppose this is no great surprise, given our ever-growing interest in local and/or foraged wild foods, not to mention bigger, bolder flavors. Ramps, or wild leeks, are among the most pungent members of the large Alliaceae, or allium, family.
But their popularity, which began to gather steam in the 1980s and 1990s, led to celebratory communal dinners, festivals, and hepped-up chefs across the country wanting them for their spring menus. I, for one, would never pass up the chance to eat ramps at one of Sean Brock’s restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina; they are a bred-in-the-bone (and tattooed-on-the-arm) ingredient for him. But I don’t really want to see them on my plate in California, say, or Arizona. That sort of profligacy has led to fast and furious ramp wrangling and habitat destruction, and thus sustainability issues: The slow-growing perennial—native to the woodlands of the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, and Canada—has become overharvested in some areas, including Québec, where foraging for commercial purposes was banned in 1995, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee, where it was banned in 2004.
In an April 2014 Penn State Extension bulletin, Eric Burkhart of Penn State’s Ecosystem Science and Management Department shared some of the ramp data he’d collected over a two-year period: “The number of ramps needed per pound of green weight in early April was about 104. Two weeks later, about half of that is needed to make a pound. There turns out to be a sweet spot in harvest dates from late April to early May. The number of ramps needed to make a pound will be lowest after the bulbs have started sizing up (late April to early May) but before the seeds are formed.”
He concluded that although ramp prices may be higher in early April, to sustain future ramp harvests and profits, it makes more sense ecologically to wait until it will take fewer ramps to make equivalent weights to harvest. That would be now—so this is the time to indulge if you are so inclined. Maybe even think about planting your own ramp patch, courtesy of seeds from Glen and Norene Facemire’s Ramp Farm in Richwood, West Virginia, where the initials “NRA” stand for “National Ramp Association.” (If you want bulbs, you’ll have to wait until the winter.) And I’d love to see chefs and home cooks alike who crave an early taste of spring factor other wild plants, such as nettles or chickweed, into the equation.
A ramp has pretty, lily-of-the-valley–like leaves and a tapering, reddish-purple stem that ends in a pearly white bulb. When buying ramps at a farmers market, look for plants with wide leaves and plump, mature bulbs. Avoid those with a few small leaves and straight, slender bulbs; they’ve been harvested too young.
Ramps in the Kitchen
Ramps are fragile plants, but they can be muddy, so wash them gently but well. Because they are such a delicacy, you won’t want to waste any part of the plant, including the roots; add those to a pot of vegetable stock or bone broth.
Both leaves and bulb can be eaten raw, but aside from ramp-spiked pesto, I generally prefer my ramps cooked. Sometimes I blanch them briefly beforehand, to further gentle the flavor and aroma. Ramps have a great affinity for other wild spring foods, such as fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms. And for a springtime nod to Appalachia, where ramps are revered, pair them with pinto beans—preferably in the form of “soup beans,” which are served in their rich broth, alongside skillet corn bread à la Ronni Lundy.
One of the quickest, easiest things you can do with ramps is toss them lightly yet thoroughly in olive oil and season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then sear them in a hot pan or on the grill. Before serving, squeeze just a bit of lemon juice over them.
And one of my favorite simple spring suppers for two is a ramp omelet, or what Deborah Madison, in Vegetable Literacy, calls Supper Eggs. Served alongside grilled whole-grain bread or roast potatoes, the dish is a great excuse to open a bottle of rosé (a wonderful wine with eggs) and toast the season.
First chop 1 to 2 handfuls of cleaned ramps into small pieces. Crack 5 large eggs (as Madison notes, ideally from barnyard chickens) into a bowl and whisk with a few pinches of salt and a grind or two of black pepper. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a well-seasoned or nonstick largish skillet over medium heat, then add the ramps and stir them around for a few minutes, until wilted and tender. Give the eggs another whisk, then pour them into the pan. Let them sit for a moment, then start drawing the partially cooked edges in toward the middle, tilting the pan so the uncooked egg flows around. If you like your eggs dry, flip the omelet over to cook briefly on the other side. If not, as soon as the eggs are the way you like them, fold the omelet, slide it onto a plate, and divide into 2 pieces. Devour immediately.