“Those look like wild ramps,” Lee said, pointing to some broad-bladed plants growing not far from the tiny stream bordering the western side of my land.
“What in the heck are ramps?” I asked a little distractedly, trying to recall something I’d heard or read somewhere.
“Some people call them wild leeks because of their bladed leaves,” replied Lee, “but their bulb is more like an onion. They taste like a cross between onion and garlic — all in the allium family.”
I took a note of where they were growing in my little jungle — and promptly forgot they were there.
That was 2017, during a visit with Lee Barnes, who was dowsing for water (and imparting a treasure trove of local lore to me) on Joyous Gard prior to my purchasing the land.
finding ramps at the farm market
It’s now 2021, and I’m renting a house up here, just a short distance from Joyous Gard. I frequent a small farm market within throwing distance of a larger grocery store. I like the farm market because it’s small and intimate and family-owned, and I can buy most of my veggie staples there, along with a few other items, such as bacon and butter and handmade soap. Last week, as I entered the store, I glanced down to see a basket of ramps.
“Ramps!” I exclaimed in my out-loud voice.
“Yes, ramps,” an older woman nearby echoed with a faint smile.
“Ah, yes, ramps,” said another older woman behind me, chuckling a little.
Suddenly, the reference to ramps I’d tried to remember on my walk with Lee materialized in my brain: In one version of the Grimm’s fairytale, it was the herb Rapunzel’s mother craved when she was pregnant. The original rampion of the German fairytale — more closely related to bellflower and whose roots were often boiled as a potato — was apparently translated to the native North American ramps. Which, incidentally, kind of ruins the fairytale if you know the name Rapunzel is one of the names for rampion. But I digress. (For further digression and a fun, spot-on analysis of the fairytale, read “7 Parts of ‘Rapunzel’ That Were Really Messed Up.”)
In the story, the ramps/rampion flowers were growing in an old witch’s garden, from which the pregnant woman’s husband stole them to satisfy his wife’s cravings. When the witch discovered his thievery, she demanded his firstborn child as payment — kind of a steep price for wild leeks.
The ramps at the farm market were pretty steeply-priced, too, but I decided to try them anyway.
local recommendations for (and warnings about) eating ramps
“I’ve never eaten them,” I explained to the two women, enthusiastically, “but I’ve heard they’re delicious.”
“Well,” said the first, a thin, wiry woman with her grey hair pulled back in a low bun, “I don’t much bother with them anymore because they’re really strong, but you should try them.”
The other woman, rounder and more matronly, chuckled again, adding, “They can give you…” She covered her mouth and chuckled behind her hand, leading me to believe she was too genteel to openly refer to flatulence. “How long does it last?” she asked the other woman. “About two weeks?”
“About two weeks, yep,” the first woman said, smiling and shaking her head in that experience-you-don’t-want-to-repeat kind of way.
It took a few rounds of intimation and chuckling for me to discover they were talking about bad breath — a concern I deflected with a wink and: “I live alone, and I wear a mask in public, so I’m the only person I’ll offend.” Both women laughed.
“They’re delicious in scrambled eggs!” said the matronly woman with a sweet smile and a twinkle in her eyes. “You really should try them.”
Scrambled eggs seemed to be the consensus among the patrons (and my neighbors), as well as with the young woman working the front counter and stocking the bins. “Oh…” she breathed. “My favorite is eating them in scrambled eggs!”
I thought there must be more interesting things to do with them, but I promised to try that, too. As I checked out, the thin, wiry woman glanced up from selecting new potatoes for her own table and added, “I’d cook them in animal fat — bacon grease. It won’t help the smell, but they’ll taste better.”
Bacon grease seems to be the Southern answer to just about any cooking challenge.
two ramps recipes i tried (and liked)
I did, indeed, eat a few in scrambled eggs, but I sautéed them in dandelion-infused olive oil instead of bacon grease. And, yes, it was delish!
The “recipe” is simply this:
I first trimmed the roots and outer layer of the bulb, but I used the rest of the plant in the sauté, including a few of the blades, which most people apparently don’t eat. (I’m not sure why not because they’re yummy, a little like green onion.) I cooked the chopped ramps until the bulb slices were starting to become a little transparent, and the greens were wilting. Then I stirred in my whisked egg and scrambled until done. Voila! (My scrambled eggs always look pretty rough, so I’ll spare you the photo.)
I’m also planning to try a ferment adding a few of them to some of my early radishes, replacing the onions and garlic I used the last time I fermented radishes. If it tastes good, I’ll create a separate post for the recipe.
Looking for those “more interesting” uses, I Googled a few recipes, and the possibilities were nothing short of inspiring. (This one for pizza with ramps, eggs, and morels sounded amazing!) Wanting something super-simple for a lunch dish, I selected one for grilling with asparagus. I adapted the recipe for the broiler, adding my own twist with a little of the violet-infused champagne vinegar I recently made to sweeten the veggies a little (I lost the photo of this one. *sigh*):
broiled wild ramps and asparagus with champagne vinaigrette
1 bunch ramps
1 bunch thin asparagus
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon white wine or champagne vinegar (I used champagne vinegar infused with violet flowers)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to finish
Preheat your broiler on low and make sure your oven rack is positioned right below it. Trim the roots from the ramps, leaving the blades intact. Trim the asparagus ends.
Whisk together the oil and vinegar. Toss or brush the ramps with the oil & vinegar mixture.
Arrange the veggies on a foil-lined broiling pan or broiler-safe (NOT non-stick), rimless cookie sheet. Broil each side for two minutes or so. You want them heated through, but you don’t want to turn the ramps blades to cinder.
Remove from the broiler and plate them up. Sprinkle with salt and grind some pepper over them to finish. They can be served hot or at room temperature. (I liked them at room temperature.)
I found they reheated pretty well the next day, too!
A note about broiling indoors: The ramps really do smell up your kitchen for a couple of days. If you’re not a fan of oniony-garlic smell — and you’re not one to burn candles for kitchen odor control — you might just go ahead and use the original recipe. Again, I live alone, so I’m the only person here to offend.
As for the bad breath: I haven’t experienced anything particularly odiferous, but the ramps were young and small. One of my neighbors told me he favors the larger ones, which he says are stronger. He was, however, right that they’d smell up the refrigerator. I opted to keep mine on the counter in a jar of shallow water and used them as quickly as I could.
growing ramps: an experiment
As it turns out, the demand for ramps has nearly depleted them — along with many other native foods. Folks are learning how to cultivate them in their wooded areas, both for their own use and for small local stores, like the one I frequent, and farmers markets.
I saved a few of the plants I bought at the market, since their roots were intact, to see if I could grow them through their flowering stage and capture some seeds to plant in my garden. Several sources say that harvesting them kills them, so I’ll have to let you know how it goes. Most of my garden experiments tend to be weirdly and unexpectedly successful, including the heirloom tomato that grew into a GIANT, yielding more than a dozen tomatoes despite the fact that I planted it ridiculously late into some of the poorest clay soil imaginable. But I might have to purchase ramps seeds if I’m going to cultivate them.
I’m also heading out in a few minutes to take another look at that crazy patchwork of medicinal plants growing in jungle-like profusion out by the stream to see if I can locate the wild ramps Lee pointed out to me years ago. I seem to remember seeing a similar leafy plant, so I’m hopeful that any garden-grown ramps will add to an established wild patch.
Have you tried ramps? Do you have a favorite recipe?