The humble ramp (aka the wild leek, aka ramson) has enjoyed a cult-like following for decades. Their fleeting appearance around the spring equinox sends people into a tizzy and is cause for online alerts when they arrive at New York City's Union Square Greenmarket. (Exhibit A.) Much ado about a wild onion? Perhaps.
Ramps are definitely delicious -- a peppery and pungent cross between onion and garlic -- and their ephemeral nature adds to their appeal. Just think, after a long winter, when you're down to dinged up apples, sad looking squash and root vegetables, ramps are the first herald of spring.
It's a joyous sight.
Before their rise to seasonal star ingredient, ramps (Allium tricoccum) trace back to modest origins in Appalachia where they are still foraged in the wild. Ramps are a welcome sign of spring in the eastern mountain states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where they are very much a part of the regional food culture. Residents have been holding annual ramp dinners and festivals for almost a century. Classic recipes include ramps and "taters" and cornbread with ramps. There's even a whole cookbook devoted to ramps, although with a decidedly upmarket spin.
Allegedly European settlers in the region learned to gorge on ramps from the Native Americans, who saw the herb as a spring tonic and a blood cleanser. I can't seem to find any hard science to back up these claims, but the folk medicine persists to this day. Native Americans such as the Cherokee also allegedly ground up ramps to use as a poultice on bug bites.
According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, about 85 percent of ramps consumed come from the wild where they grow amongst the leaf litter in the rich, moist soil of the forest. As the tree canopy grows denser with new growth, increasingly blocking out sunlight, ramps wither and their fleeting season ends. It's said that in the American South, when ramps are at their peak, the parked cars of foragers line the highways and folks tromp into the woods with boxes to fill with ramps. Allegedly ramps like to grow in the sandy soil near streams or close to beech, birch, poplar and maple trees.
But what about growing your own? Should you have access to similar wild conditions -- shade, moist soil rich in organic matter -- seeds are available for purchase on the internet and should be planted in the fall. Agricultural studies reveal, however, that while ramps can be cultivated for commercial use, they should be grown in a forest environment. Glen and Norene Facemire in Richwood, West Virginia claim to have the only ramp farm in the world.
The ramp season runs for short two months, from April to May -- sometimes starting as early as late March if the weather is on the warmer side. It is their ephemeral quality that gives ramps their increased sense of value.
Because people tend to gorge on ramps when they are in season, they have a bit of a supply and demand problem -- too many people clamoring for them, not enough ramps in the wild to satisfy the public's growing appetite, and foragers seeing dollar signs sprouting out of the woodland earth. Even worse, some foragers over-collect and don't leave behind enough of the clump so that it will grow into the next season, an unsustainable practice that threatens their future.
Could ramps could become a victim of their own success? There is understandable concern that continued demand may bring a collapse in the wild population. But it's not as simple as passing conservation laws as Quebec did in 1995, which limits harvesting to 200 grams per person per season and for personal consumption only. Once an area has been cleared of ramps, there is evidence of non-native plants coming in and claiming the land. And reseeding isn't as easy as it sounds, as it takes around a year for seeds to germinate and between five and seven years to reach maturity.
Ramps have a delicate look about them with slender white stems that turn burgundy at the base and two leaves fanning out in a v-shape akin to a crocus.
Ramps are sold in farmers' markets by the bunch and they look very similar to spring onions. What distinguishes them are their broad leaves, purplish stems and pungent garlic smell. Look for leaves that are fresh and not wilted.
If you're lucky enough to be scouting ramps in the wild, look for clumps of broad, smooth leaves growing from the woodland floor. Using a trowel, pull back the leaf litter and soil to expose the top of the white bulbs and burgundy stems. To confirm that that you've found yourself some ramps, break off a piece of leaf and give it the sniff test. Does it smell like onions or garlic? Yes? Congratulations! But don't get too greedy -- only harvest about 15 to 25 percent of the clump, otherwise there will be no ramps for the next season. And only harvest from healthy beds, not areas that have already been overharvested. Practice sustainable foraging.
Note that ramps look very similar to the poisonous Lily of the Valley, probably owing to the fact that they are from the same family. So sniff before you taste.
Ramps are high in vitamins A and C. And ramps, as mentioned previously, are consumed in Appalachia as a spring tonic to cleanse the blood. While this folk medicine is unproven, studies have found that ramps actually help fight cancer. A study published in 2000 by Whanger et al revealed that a diet of selenium enriched ramps -- an essential micronutrient -- brought about a 43 percent reduction in tumors in lab rats.
Ramps are a seasonal substitute for any recipe that calls for spring onions, scallions or garlic.
Ramps can be readily sautéed, chopped up and added to scrambled eggs, pickled or served in a springtime risotto. They have a peppery, garlicky bite that gives them a bit of a stinky reputation, but that shouldn't put you off of them.
Ramps, unlike the conventional leek, require little cleaning. Just give them a good rinse, trim the root hairs and they are ready for cooking. Or you can eat them raw if you're feeling especially adventurous. But if you do, note that they are called the King of Stink for a reason!
Once foraged, ramps only last three or four days before perishing. To store, loosely wrap in a paper towel and place in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag. Ramps can be frozen, but I'd stick to freezing the bulbs and using the leaves fresh.
In keeping with their humble origins, here's a simple, down home recipe for your seasonal haul of ramps. I've adapted this from a recipe from the Chickens in the Road blog.
3 medium sized potatoes
1 bunch of ramps
6 slices of bacon
4 free-range eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse your potatoes of any extra dirt, then chop them up into thumb sized pieces. I prefer to keep the skin on, but if you like your taters without skin, peel them before chopping.
Bring a pot of water to boil that's big enough to hold your taters, cooking them until they are al dente. You will know they are done when a knife easily pieces them, but not too done that the potato has started to crumble. Drain and set aside.
While your taters are cooking, give your ramps a good rinse. When clean, pat them dry and then slice off the root tops. Then take your remaining ramps and cut into 1-inch pieces, both white tops and greens. Set aside.
In a large skillet, fry up your slices of bacon over medium low heat. I find that bacon cooks unevenly and burns when the burner is turned up too high. Let "low and slow" be your mantra. The bacon is done when small white bubbles begin to form over your slices. Remove the bacon from the pan, blot the excess grease with a paper towel and chop them up, setting aside.
In the skillet with your reserved bacon fat, cook your ramps and your potatoes over medium-high heat. When the potatoes start to crisp up, crack your eggs one by one over the tater and ramp mixture. If you like your eggs scrambled, scramble them into the mixture. If you like your eggs sunny side up, cover the skillet for about a minute as the eggs cook in the steam. Add some salt and pepper and you're all done. Makes for a tasty farmers' market breakfast!
This post was originally published in March 2013.