You know it’s April in the Hudson Valley when you see ramps pop up, in the farmer’s market or in the woods. Ramps are wild leeks, an allium related to onions, shallots, garlic, and of course, leeks, and they create quite a sensation each spring when the broad, waxy green leaves start popping up in the woods. With good reason: although some think we should just shut up about ramps, there is a reason that foodniks go a little mad each Spring; ramps are simply wonderful. They’re delicious raw or cooked, you can use them like a scallion, a leek or a shallot; the leaves and the bulb are edible, in fact the plant is edible all year long, if you can find it. The flavor is…wild. Ramps definitely have that oniony taste & smell, but the flavor is unique; spicier & more tangy than a commercial leek, but with not quite the sharpness of a shallot or onion. The greens have a texture between chard and baby spinach, yet the spice of arugula without the peppery bite. What can I say? Ramps are hard to describe – it’s worth the effort to find some and try them out for yourself.
According to Wildman Steve Brill (click on “plants” and scroll down to “ramps” to see detailed info), ramps thrive in “partially shaded, moist, rich woodlands” where the colonies form ground cover. They range from the Great Lakes to New England and south to Georgia. The bulbs are smallest in the early spring, when the plant gets its nutrition from the sun via the leaves, but once the leaves die off in late spring, the bulbs continue to grow through summer and into fall. I find mine at Holbrook Farm, for $2/bunch, and eagerly await the coming of April, and ramp season, every year. If you do manage to spot some in the woods, break a leaf (or dig for the bulb) and make sure it smells of onions; the leaves of the poisonous lily of the valley plant look similar, but do not smell like onion (in fact, nothing that smells like onion is poisonous). If you go foraging, be sure to collect only 50% (or less) of each cluster, leaving some to mature and proliferate for next year. Make a note of the exact location, so you can find the ramps again next year.
Once you’ve found your ramps, what to do with them? Ramps are a very versatile vegetable. In the early spring, when the bulbs are still quite small, I like to eat them raw, washed well and greens & bulbs chopped into green salad. Check out Preppy Spring Salad, Easy Breezy Peasy Salad, or Radish Quinoa Salad. The greens are spicy & tender and would work well in chard or arugula recipes, like Mini Swiss Chard Quiche, Spring Green Veggie Pasta or Arugula Mustard. Later in the Spring, when the bulbs get a little bigger, they are excellent in place of scallion or shallots, in sautés or stir-frys like Chickpea Stir-Fry or Chicken, Radish & Green Garlic. Ramps are delicious with eggs, whether scrambled, in an omelet or frittata; some raw milk cheddar and ramps would make one fabulous scone.
For ramp-specific recipes, see Chickpea & Spring Green Salad and Ramp & Cilantro Pesto. One of my favorite recipes of the year was Chicken Braised in White Wine and Ramps: a show stopper. See also a ramp recipe round-up over at Simply Recipes, including three from Hank of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.
The Spring ramp season is short; to preserve your bounty for the coming months, blanche & freeze the leaves as you would chard or kale, or make pesto, infused oil or vinegar as you would with fresh herbs. Dry chopped bulbs and leaves in a dehydrator or low oven, or use in pickles, chutneys, or confit. For a host of allium preserving recipe ideas, review the offerings at Tigress’ March Can Jam round-up, or check out Well Preserved’s fascinating dehydrated ramp roots.