Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ramps! Ramps for spring! Ramp recipes!

Following a long winter in the northeast which delayed almost all early-spring growth, it is finally the time when ramps appear in farmers markets in the NYC area. 

If you found this post you probably know what ramps are -- you probably searched for something like "ramps recipes," "ramps NYC," "ramps cultivate," or similar.  In case you don't know, ramps are basically wild leeks.  They like to grow in the shade, so they're mostly grown naturally in the woods as opposed to being planted in nice rows on a farm, though there are doubtless exceptions.   Now that they're the "in" vegetable again, this makes them pretty expensive for what is basically a weed.(1)  In North America, they're most prevalent along the Appalachian mountains. 

They have a short season, shedding their fragrant, tasty leaves and growing flowers by the time June rolls around.  Because they were generally among the first edible plants to appear in the spring ramps were considered a welcome harbinger of the food to come both by the early European settlers and the Native Americans who preceded them.  Chicago is named for a Native word for ramps -- the area was crawling with the things when La Salle showed up. 

Ramps have a small scallion-like bulb at the root end, a short thin stalk which can turn purple or burgundy and broad leaves which appear large relative to the size of the plant.  They are extremely pungent and both smell and taste like a happy combination of yellow onions, scallions and garlic. 

As part of the overall movement to better food, people are rediscovering local foods which for one reason or another have not been cultivated by the huge farms and even more huge food companies.  Ramps fit squarely into this trend. So all up and down the northeast you see ramps in farmers markets, on the menu of local restaurants and endless celebrations of them in the press, both dead-tree and internet-based.

How do you use ramps?  Basically as a substitute for any allium.  You can get  a nice taste of spring and a fun different taste in almost any recipe which uses garlic, onions, leeks, scallions or chives.   You have to earn them, though.  Ramps are dirty like leeks.  The way to clean them is to cut off the root and then wash them one or two at a time under running water, pulling off a thin membrane which covers the stalk and bulb.

They roast very nicely, getting a good char on the leaves just as the bulbs become tender when sauteed in your choice of fat.  To get the full spectrum of ramps' flavors, simply heat up a thin layer extra virgin olive oil or butter, throw a few ramps in and cook without turning until the leaves start to get a char on them.  Alternatively, brush the oil on them and toss them right on the grill, which you've doubtless been waiting to fire up all winter.  Serve them alone as a side dish or ramp (hah!) them up by putting them on a bruschetta with some buffalo mozzarella - Mario Batali's version was terrific, but I'd skip the tomato part and just let the ramps and toast stand with the mozz.  Tonight I made a ramp risotto based on a recipe from my favorite chef-scientist, J. Kenji L√≥pez-Alt at SeriousEats.com.(2)  They're also apparently outstanding with eggs; I'll probably pick up another couple of bunches this weekend and try them in and on an omelet.  Heck, throw them in a glass of Gin for a ramp Gibson!  Really, though, just think of whatever onion or garlic-heavy dish you enjoy most and swap in some ramps.  Like to cook Italian-American food?  Use the ramp bulbs to make ramp bread instead of garlic bread, toss the leaves into a green salad, and chop the stems like scallions and sprinkle them on the pasta sauce.  Prefer Indian?  How about a garlic curry but with ramps?

As it happens, I didn't set out to make this entire entry about ramps.  I intended to write about strawberries.  But this is getting to be a lengthy piece by blog standards.  So my next entry will address ramps, what makes them "in" right now, why you read way too much about them given that they're basically a weedy onion, and strawberries.  




(1): Morel mushrooms are apparently impossible to cultivate, much like truffles.  That accounts for the expense. 

(2): Today I learned why people prefer their vegetable stock to be on the clear side.  I took a picture of my ramp risotto, which was delicious, but it looked like something Linda Blair spit up. 

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