It’s spring on the east coast, which means it’s time for the annual tussle over the appeal of certain seasonal delicacies. I refer to the yearly kerfuffle over ramps, fiddleheads, morels, and other harbingers of early spring that leave some people swooning like idiots, and others rolling their eyes at the gullibility of foodies, particularly those of the locavore persuasion. Even though ramps, fiddleheads, morels, and other such foods have been enjoyed for centuries, they’ve gained new prominence during the past several years as people have gone crazy for wild, foraged product.
Having lived in Minneapolis in the early 90s, I learned pretty early that I don’t care for fiddleheads, which I picked up a few times at the local co-op before deciding I didn’t like them. They’re ferns that supposedly taste of asparagus and artichokes, but to me, they just taste like ferns. A little rusty and bitter, and not particularly delicious unless blanketed in sauce hollandaise, which is a pretty reliable way to cover any unpleasant tastes in anything but no tribute to the flavor of the fern. Ramps and morels, by comparison, are and always have been worth the hype. And although you can buy dried morels year-round, the ramp is far more ephemeral. It smells and tastes like a delicate cross between onion and garlic. The leaves are a little like scallions and chives, but far more grassy-green, and the first few times I ate them back in the day, I was a little unnerved by the fact that I could taste their woodland origins. The ramp is only available a few weeks out of the year, you can only find it in certain parts of the country, and it spoils quickly. It’s like the goddamn giant panda of the edible plant world.*
I recently acquired a good supply of ramps from a friend in our supper club, who presented me with a big bag that he in turn got from a chef he knows. It was a little like being invited to a great party the day after you agreed to attend a much lamer one – I was scheduled to spend a week out of town for work starting that Monday, and wasn’t going to be able to spend all week eating ramps. Luckily, ramp bulbs can be preserved nicely by pickling, and if you can’t get around to using them fresh right away, the leaves make an excellent compound butter. Win-win.
So if you find yourself with some ramps – and the season’s almost over – don’t worry about hurrying to serve them grilled and such with everything. Pickle the bulbs, and incorporate the greens into butter, or gnocchi dough, or biscuits. If you can, save a few to chop up and scramble into eggs while they’re fresh.
*It also may be somewhat at risk – some conservationists have expressed concern that ramp madness has led to overharvesting. Their sale has been banned in Quebec, where they’re a threatened species, since 1995. If you’re considering foraging your own this year or next, read up about how to harvest ramps sustainably. Seems if you’re the sort of person who cares about eating ramps, you’ll be interested in keeping them around. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.
Ramps are dirty – they come to market more or less as they are retrieved from the earth, not subjected to a high-pressure water bath. Wash the ramps really well and then divide the bulbs and the greens, removing any greens that have been badly bruised or are slimy at the base.
Trim the root from the bulbs. I always wash everything again at this point to remove any remaining grit.
The greens can be cooked fresh as one would use scallions or leek greens. They’re delicate, though, so don’t overpower with other flavors. If you want to use them in compound butter or anything else involving storage, you need to blanch them first or the enzymes in the leaves will turn them to mush eventually. See the directions for blanching in the Ramp Butter recipe below.
As mentioned above, there is some question about the sustainability of wild ramp foraging, and conservationists recommend not harvesting the bulbs. That said, if you have them, this is the best way to use them.
2 lb ramps, cleaned, and greens trimmed (reserve for butter)
1 c distilled white vinegar
1 c water
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp black mustard seed
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar
Bring the vinegar, water, spices, salt, and sugar to a simmer and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve.
Divide the ramps among sterilized small lidded jars. Ladle in the pickling brine and close tightly. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes if intending to store on the shelf; otherwise simply refrigerate for several days before using.
This keeps for months in the freezer, tightly wrapped – this is especially good on fish.
By the way, if you still have any yuzu from the winter, substitute it for the lemon. Ramps plus yuzu – food snobbery two-fer!
Greens from 2 lb ramps, above
1/2 lb cold unsalted butter (2 sticks)
two small lemons, zest grated, juice reserved
2/3 tsp salt
1/4 tsp shichimi togarashi or 1/8 tsp cayenne
Set a large pot of water to the boil and, when boiling at a full roll, blanch the greens just long enough for them to wilt completely, about 90 seconds. Alternatively, vacuum seal and drop the bags into the boiling water for four minutes. Do not use an immersion circulator and do not try to blanch in a small pot of water. You need to big-pot boil them so they maintain their bright green color.
Squeeze as much liquid as you can from the greens and transfer to a food processor. Process until coarsely chopped; add the butter, lemon zest and about 2 tsp juice, salt and shichimi and process until quite smooth.
Turn out onto a sheet of foil lined with clingfilm in a log and roll the compound butter within the plastic-lined foil. Twist to seal at the ends and freeze for future use.