Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Ramp Primer

Anyone who has been following my Facebook page for the last week has seen a number of posts on ramps - and I'm talking about the vegetable, not the inclined plane. But I realize that a lot of people have never seen a ramp, let alone tasted one. So my goal here is to tell you the basics of identifying, locating, cleaning, storing, and preparing ramps.

Identification and procurement
The ramp (Allium tricoccum) is a wild onion or leek native to North America. They are most closely associated with Appalachia, but they grow across most of the eastern half of the US and Canada in shady forest areas. Their flavor is a mix of garlic and onion with a pronounced funk (some people say cheesiness) - the last bit is much more noticeable after they are cooked. They usually grow as 1-3 leaves from a white or red-tinged stem, and at least around here they have a habit of growing under rocks and on steep hillsides. The bulb and stem are scallion-like, while the leaves are more similar to leeks or garlic.

The most reliable way to get your hands on ramps is to forage them. They grow exceptionally slowly - one source I saw estimated that they can take 6-7 years to begin proliferating if you transplant them into your garden, which means that you have to wait that long to start harvesting. That makes asparagus look easy. This should also make it clear that over-foraging is a real concern - the only estimate I have seen is to harvest no more than 5% of a patch per year, but keep in mind that that covers the total harvest for that year, not just what you are taking.

If you're going to forage, try to go with someone who has done it before. While there are no widespread toxic mimics in the US, all foraging is best done with a teacher at first. And foraging is an oral tradition, so this way you can pass it on to others later on.

Ramps are one of the very first spring vegetables - here in Maryland, they are ready for harvest 4-6 weeks before asparagus and rhubarb. And you only get 3-4 weeks to harvest them, so you can't dawdle or you'll miss them. After that period, the leaves die back and they flower and go to seed.

Alternative to foraging: if you live in New York, ramps show up in huge quantities at the Union Square Greenmarket for a few weeks every spring. They're pricey but very fresh and delicious. I do recommend talking to the vendors and finding out what their foraging practices are like - again, sustainability is an issue here.

Cleaning and storage
I went foraging with a friend last week in [REDACTED] - she asked me not to share the forage location. I came back with a 5-gallon bucket full of ramps, or somewhere around 3.5 pounds. Ramps are extremely perishable - somewhat more so than fresh spinach, for a reference point. If you plan to use them within a week or so, you can hose off the roots and wrap them in a damp paper towel. If you want to eke out another few days, skip the hose just wrap the roots, dirt and all. I put my wrapped ramp bundles in a gallon plastic bag with holes poked in it for ventilation, then put them in the vegetable drawer of my fridge.

When you're ready to use your ramps, preparing them is somewhat labor intensive. If they are still covered in dirt, fill your sink or another large basin with warm water, dump the ramps in, and swish them around to get the dirt off. I find the next step easiest if the roots and bulbs are facing away from you. Ramps (like most other Allium members) are covered in a thin slimy membrane or netting on the bulb, which you will need to get off. An easy way to get this off is to break the root end off the bulb, then run your hands down the bulb toward the root until you pull off the membrane. Then break off the bulb from the leaves and put them in separate bowls, as you will often want to prepare them in different fashions.

Once all of your ramps are clean and ready to use, you have several options:

1. Eat raw. My friend likes to eat them raw with beans and cornbread. Ramps are sweeter than raw onions and delicious raw, but a lot of people (me included) get mild stomach upset from eating raw alliums. So try a little bit first and see if they get along with you.

2. Pesto. You can blanch the ramps first or not - the pesto will be much stronger if you don't blanch, but the flavor is fantastic and like nothing else. I made pesto with about 12 ounces of raw ramps (bulbs, stems, and leaves) and a handful of walnuts to mellow it out a bit. Some of the leaves are a bit fibrous, but you'll see which as they just won't process very well. Just pull those out and toss them. The pesto emulsified very well without adding olive oil, so there must be some kind of natural emulsifier or saponin in the plant - I just added a little olive oil to round out the flavor. I got around a pint of bright green pesto and froze it in four portions for future dinners. It is very strong, very garlicky, and exactly how spring should taste.

3. Pickling. You can pickle the bulbs just like any onion - the leaves won't pickle well. Either vinegar or lactic-acid pickling should work.

4. Preserving in oil. While this is delicious and will leave you with some fantastic ramp-flavored oil, there is a theoretical risk of botulism. If you want to do this, I recommend researching online - there are a number of recipes and methods around that should reduce the botulism risk via prolonged exposure to heat.

5. Frying. This is how I'm preserving most of my ramps. First tear the leaves into 1-2" pieces, then wilt them in a hot frying pan with some olive oil, butter, bacon drippings, lard - whatever you want, really. Chop the stems and bulbs and add them to the frying pan once the leaves are wilted, along with more fat if you need it. I usually fry mine for 15 minutes or so, or until the ramps begin to brown. Then cool and pack in small containers. They will last a few weeks tightly sealed in the fridge, or quite a long time in the freezer. For freezing I recommend packing small portions in sandwich bags, then sealing them in freezer-safe Ziploc bags and getting as much air out as possible. You won't get a ton - 10-12 ounces raw will get you around a cup of finished caramelized ramps - but they're great for adding to any stir-fry, stew, or soup after that.