Ramps, an obsession

Ramp greens growing in the peony bed with tulips and forget me knots.

While most Americans identify April 15 with tax filing, I anxiously await the date as the first sure day to find ramps in the woods. Ramps (allium trioccum) are first of the wild edible greens (ahead of dandelion greens) to come up in our region.

Ramps are woodland plants, a wild leek, with a bulb that resembles a scallion, and a trio of wide flat green leaves look something like a lily of the valley. They smell strongly of onion-garlic, are versatile in recipes and are incredibly rich in Vitamin A and C.

Found up and down the inland mid-Atlantic coast, up to Canada, wherever streams run under tree cover, ramps can be found all the way to Wisconsin, which can hardly be deemed any sort of coast. The name “Chicago” derives from the stink of ramps, a rendering of the Native American word for the wild onion, “shikaakwa.”

The etymology of ramps is often attributed to English settlers in the 16th century through an early misidentification of the plant they found in the Appalachian range where ramps grow in profusion. The plants looked and smelled like familiar European wild ramsons, a type of wild garlic.

Digging

You get the first whiff as you dig them, which grows stronger in the car on the way home, becoming stunning in the house as you clean them. When a batch are kept in a bin, the fridge sends a blast of onion each time you open it. Even stored in the freezer, I have to double-bag them.

On your foray, bring a long-handled shovel, fork or small hand trowel with you. Unless it’s been a very dry week you’ll want to wear waterproof footgear. Protect yourself against the risk of deer ticks and mosquitoes.  I wear a hat to offset the nuisance of noseeums. Bring a lightweight bucket, a basket or even plastic shopping bags to carry your harvest.

Naturalized scilla in the foreground with transplanted ramps by the garden shed.

Slide your shovel in deep, and slowly lift so you bring the long whites to the surface. Gently pull the small groups of ramps free from the soil. If you are near a running stream you might want to do a first rinse there.

Ramps are protected and considered threatened in some regions, though they are plentiful in New York State. Always avoid over harvesting – work your way around, taking a few from different areas, leaving half bunches, and any smaller ramps. Take only what you need and can use within a few days.
Washing

Dirt clings to the ramp roots. This week I cleaned my bunches at an outside faucet, which means I didn’t get a sink full of earth, and I minimized the pungent aroma in the kitchen. All the trimmings went straight to the compost.

After a second rinse you can trim the bottom of the ramp with a sharp knife, removing the roots. Then grab the purple “wrapper” between your thumb and forefinger, sliding it down along the white and off the ramp. You should have a clean bright white bulb remaining. You may need to rinse one more time when you are done cleaning the whole batch. Once trimmed and cleaned the entire plant is tender and choice for eating.

Storage

Store them in the refrigerator tightly wrapped to keep them from drying out. Use them as soon as possible after harvest, within two days, if possible. More recipes for cooking and preserving ramps will be posted over the next month. Meanwhile, I’m using them in almost everything I cook: chopped up in rice, stuffed in roasting game hen, in spinach pie, roasted along with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms, scrambled into eggs…

And a couple important caveats:

1. See my posting of April 21, 2011, “The Limits of Wild Harvesting” about how regions where ramps are protected, how to sustainably harvest wild ramps, and how to plan for future crops.

2. After cleaning ramps at the kitchen sink, take your debris immediately to the compost or an outdoor trash can (or freeze them until trash day), otherwise over the passing days your home will smell increasingly like garbage – a rampy/garlicky unredeeming odor.

And please always harvest sustainably – not just ramps but for everything you forage.. Read more about it here before you head to the woods:

http://www.uvm.edu/~bbeckage/Manuscripts/Rock.BiologicalConservation.2004.pdf

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About barbaraprice

Artist, Food writer, book editor, gardener
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