This post was first published a few years ago on our now-retired Green Fork blog by Chelsea Dewitt, who worked back then as Program Coordinator for the Eat Well Guide. For a firsthand account of a wild ramp harvest, check out Eve Fox’s recent foraging bonanza at Garden of Eating (and while you're there, see her mouthwatering recipe for ramp pesto).
I first encountered ramps last spring during a stroll around the New York City Union Square Farmers Market. As I wandered around eying the newly surfaced springtime specialty items, I caught site of an unfamiliar broad, green, smooth leaf with a reddish stem and white bulb (or weed, as it’s referred to by the National Gardening Association). Little did I know that this garlicky and sharp-tasting delicacy had such a strong following among chefs and eaters alike.
The emergence of Ramps, or wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), constitutes an ephemeral period of about five weeks in early spring when they shoot out of the ground in a race against the leaves of the hardwood trees that will soon open up and shade them out. Aside from symbolizing the beginning of spring, ramps are also known to alert mushroomers (especially those of the Morel Hunter variety) of the imminent season.
Here are some more facts about ramps:
Growing Season: Foraged from late March through June.
Cultivation: Woodlands and forests from South Carolina to Canada--especially popular in West Virginia and the Canadian province of Quebec (where ramps are actually considered an endangered species).
Taste and Smell: Combination of onion and garlic, and the odor is known to be particularly pungent.
Preparation: Both the leaves and bulbs can be eaten--chop them up or sautee whole.
Dishes: Soups, casseroles, rice dishes and potato dishes. Ramps with scrambled eggs is also a favorite.
Trivia: The name for the city of Chicago is said to originate from "Checagoua" (Chick-Ah-Goo-Ah) or "Checaguar," which in the Potawatomi language means "wild onions" or "skunk." It is believed that the area was named this because of the smell of rotting wild leeks (ramps) in the marshland that used to occupy the region.
Recipe from Alice Feiring featured in the The New York Times
½ ; pound ramps
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces Gruyere or extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
¼ ; cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes (or potato of choice) of similar size
2 cups half-and-half
3 sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional: red pepper flakes.
(Note: You can never use too many ramps or too much cheese in this dish. Adjust up or down depending on taste.)
1. Sautee ramps in olive oil until wilted, with a dash of pepper flakes if you like a kick. Combine the cheeses and reserve a cup for the topping.
2. Wash the potatoes, peel if you like (I don’t) and slice them into very thin rounds, using a mandoline or a sharp knife.
3. Oil a 9-by-12-inch heavy, shallow baking dish, preferably earthenware or cast enamel.
4. In a small saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a simmer with thyme and add, generously, salt and pepper. Remove the thyme and set the mixture aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
6. Arrange about one-fourth of the potatoes in a layer on the bottom of the dish. Season as you go. Evenly layer in about one-third of the ramps, sprinkling cheese and a few spoons of half-and-half; repeat twice, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pour the rest of the half-and-half over the potato mixture, allowing the liquid to hit just below the top layer of potatoes. Top off with the remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake until the potatoes feel tender, about one hour.
7. Raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees, remove the foil and bake until the top begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Chelsea DeWitt is currently a dual degree graduate student in Landscape Architecture and Urban & Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. In addition to her love for experimenting with seasonal foods in the kitchen, she is interested in the overlap of design and planning with urban agricultural projects.