Saturday found me deep in the woods by my house foraging for ramps. You don’t know what ramp is? I didn’t either until a few years ago; now I think I need to form my own self-help group. Of late, I have become an aficionado of these distant cousins of the Lily. Some say I am so crazed, that come spring, I watch for the first signs of the telltale shoots of the coming crop like a nervous schoolgirl waiting her first date.
Yes, as the last snows are clearing, I begin to wait in anticipation for the perfect time to harvest my favorite wild vegetable. I am giddy over the creative ways in which I can use every aspect of the delectable little forest delight! From dehydrated root (for soup!) to bulb and leaves, nothing will go to waste!
I didn’t have a clue what a ramp, (or Rampon, wild leek or – if you are a very sophisticated Epicurean, an ail des bois) was until I found myself happily married to a man with roots in West Virginia. Shortly after buying property there for a weekend home, we stumbled across a patch of our own wild treasures on a walk several years ago. Sometimes referred to as wild garlic, ramps have a personality – and an aroma – that is uniquely distinct. They appear in forests from South Carolina to Canada and are usually found near water in shady areas of the woods. Ramps favor sandy, rocky soil and seem to particularly thrive near fallen timber.
Digging requires patience and selflessness; you must have a gentle hand to coax the build free and not damage the gentle root system and you must take caution to not let your enthusiasm for the crop lead to over harvesting. The latter is especially critical! I took too much last spring and noticed the markedly smaller size of our field this year. In the spirit of being responsible, we harvested less than I wanted and have decided that next year we will need to find a new place to forage. Protecting the long-term sustainability of this unique gift from nature is important to me – at all costs!
Fried in bacon fat with potatoes, the pungent bulbs were a delicacy to even the poorest of mountain children who learned to live off of the land and eat richly of Mother Nature’s bounty. Unfortunately, the punishment (or reward?) was no school: my mother-in-law tells me when she was a child, you were not welcome at school for two days after consuming ramps, a testament to their perilous aroma.
My approach to cooking with ramps is different from the traditional menus of yesterday. Tonight’s dinner was a frittata made with pasta, fresh asparagus, ramps sautéed in garlic, olive oil and all flavored with some amazingly meaty Snows/Bumble Bee White Clam Sauce samples I brought home from work; it was beyond amazing! Even my ten-year-old asked for the left-overs in her lunch for school tomorrow! I’ll tell her later it was clams – she claims she doesn’t eat seafood…score one for Mom!
The recipe brain is on full throttle: I have plans for a spicy marmalade (for winter cheese and crackers) with the bulbs, a modern Korean-style kimchi with the leaves, a tart with asparagus and ricotta and caramelized bulbs; collecting recipes is as much fun for me as deciding what I will make. Two very special bulbs are set aside for a swim in their own bottles of vodka…I am envisioning some wicked Bloody Mary’s ahead! That said, most of my bulbs and leaves will be freeze-dried and carefully doled out in cautious measure over the next 12 months, for it will be a long time until next April. I love the chaos and madness of trying to get as much as I can – fresh, pickled, preserved and frozen – out of the harvest and making it last for the year ahead!
I do so love these stinky little wild onions. I love that they are rare, prized gems that God made to fight their way into existence from the bottom of a forgotten hillside. Not precious enough to be a fragrant lily, they are instead, a distinctly outrageous delicacy that cause people from all walks of life to celebrate and commune together over every spring. The festivals and community dinners that take place in April and May all over the Eastern region are a testament to the traditions of church, fellowship and family.
They give reason for “city folk,” like my husband and I, to sit for hours together in the woods laughing and talking without distraction about a million things we might otherwise never make time to do while we gather and clean our harvest. They inspire chefs to create, writers to write and environmentalists to protect wetlands and conserve. For smelly little guys, they are pretty amazing! They unite generations and cultures in ways I don’t think their sophisticated cousins could even imagine!
If you have never tried a ramp, or made time to take a long walk in the woods lately and rediscover the wild, wonderful world of nature, now is an amazing time to get up and go! These little harbingers of spring can be found until the tree canopy comes out, sending them back underground for another season. Iff you are fortunate enough to find a beautiful patch of what looks like lilies, but smells like onions, please give me a call! I need a new place to forage – and commune with nature – next spring!
- Jennifer Maffett: I Dig the Ramps (huffingtonpost.com)
- In Celebration of Ramps (oldpotsfreshfood.wordpress.com)
- Are ramps being overharvested? (farmingthewoods.com)
- Spring is “ramp”ing up (sewaneeherbarium.wordpress.com)
- Ramps(wild Leeks) a West Virginia Tradtional Wild Food (forestmtnhike.wordpress.com)