Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Ramps

By Paul Pellegrino / Adobe Stock

The humble ramp (a.k.a. the wild leek, or ramson) has enjoyed a cult-like following for decades. Their fleeting appearance around the spring equinox sends people into a tizzy and is cause for online alerts when they arrive at many a farmers' market (Exhibit A). Much ado about a wild onion? Perhaps.

Ramps are definitely delicious -- a peppery and pungent cross between onion and garlic -- and their ephemeral nature adds to their appeal. Yet, despite their beloved flavor and growing fan base of eaters, the plant has an equally loud coalition of environmentalists who argue they should be left unharvested. But even so, after a long winter, when you're down to dinged up apples, sad looking squash and root vegetables, the sighting of ramps is undeniably the first herald of spring.

A Brief History

Before their rise to seasonal star ingredient, ramps (Allium tricoccum) trace back to modest origins in Appalachia where they are still foraged in the wild. Ramps are a welcome sign of spring in the eastern mountain states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where they are very much a part of the regional food culture. Residents have been holding annual ramp dinners and festivals for almost a century. Classic recipes include ramps and "taters" and cornbread with ramps. There's even a whole cookbook devoted to ramps, although with a decidedly upmarket spin.

Allegedly European settlers in the region learned to gorge on ramps from the Native Americans, who saw the herb as a spring tonic and a blood cleanser. There might not be any hard science to back these claims, but the folk medicine persists to this day. Native Americans such as the Cherokee also allegedly ground up ramps to use as a poultice on bug bites.

Factual nibbles

  • Ramps are members of the lily family and a cousin to onions and garlic.
  • Ramson or ram's son harkens back to the zodiac sign of Aries, the ram, which coincides with the equinox and first green shoots of spring.
  • The Latin word for ramps, Allium ursinium, derives from the Old English word for bear leek. While similar, the ramp as we know it in the United States is native to North America, not Europe. It seems that the resemblance between the two plants led to the word ramp being co-opted for A. tricoccum.
  • To add to the confusion, ramps are sometimes referred to as wild garlic, which is actually a completely different plant. Wild garlic (also known as crow garlic, or A. vineale) is an invasive species that you probably dug up in the backyard as a kid, making your hands smell of garlic. 
  • Ramps grow wild as far north as Quebec, as far south as Georgia, and as far west as Oklahoma.
  • Richwood, West Virginia claims to be the ramp capital of the world.
  • Ramps are colloquially referred to as the King of Stink in Appalachia.

Cultivation

According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, about 85 percent of ramps consumed come from the wild where they grow amongst the leaf litter in the rich, moist soil of the forest. As the tree canopy grows denser with new growth, increasingly blocking out sunlight, ramps wither and their fleeting season ends. In the American South, when ramps are at their peak, the parked cars of foragers line the highways and folks tromp into the woods with boxes to fill with ramps. Ramps like to grow in the sandy soil near streams or close to beech, birch, poplar and maple trees.

Should you have access to similar wild conditions -- shade, moist soil rich in organic matter - it is possible to grow your own ramps. Seeds are available for purchase on the internet and should be planted in the fall. Agricultural studies reveal, however, that while ramps can be cultivated for commercial use, they should be grown in a forest environment. Glen and Norene Facemire in Richwood, West Virginia claim to have the only ramp farm in the world.

Seasonality

The ramp season runs for short two months, from April to May -- sometimes starting as early as late March if the weather is on the warmer side. It is likely this transitory  quality that gives ramps their increased sense of value.

Environmental impact

Because of heavy pressure on wildlife populations, foragers have been accused of over-collecting and damaging future populations of ramps by harvesting frequently and digging from the bulb. As their popularity has increased, this reckless behavior has obliterated much of their wild growth. In response and in an attempt to preserve wild populations, several North American bans on ramp collection have been put in place. In North Carolina and Tenneesse's Great Smoky Mountains National Park the practice of foraging for ramps was banned when a study confirmed that the only way to protect ramp patches was to harvest under 10 percent every 10 years.  Quebec banned the commercial sale of ramps in 1995, limiting harvesting to personal consumption only. Yet, almost comically, a black market has erupted amongst foragers who can fetch a pretty penny by selling the contraband (yes, we're still talking about ramps) in the nearby providence of Ontario.

Once an area has been cleared of ramps, there is evidence of non-native plants coming in and claiming the land. And reseeding isn't as easy as it sounds, as it takes around a year for seeds to germinate and between five and seven years to reach maturity.

The number one most sustainable way to harvest ramps is without their bulbs, though you might find that finding bulbless ramps at market is a challenge. Ask your farmer about their practices and why they've chosen to harvest ramps with the bulb attached.  

Characteristics

Ramps have a delicate look about them with slender white stems that turn burgundy at the base and two leaves fanning out in a v-shape akin to a crocus.

What to look for

Ramps are sold in farmers' markets by the bunch and they look very similar to spring onions. What distinguishes them are their broad leaves, purplish stems and pungent garlic smell. Look for leaves without the bulb that are fresh and not wilted.

If you're scouting ramps in the wild, be conscientious. Look for clumps of broad, smooth leaves growing from the woodland floor. Using a trowel, pull back the leaf litter and soil to expose the top of the white bulbs and burgundy stems and only clip the leaves. To confirm that that you've found yourself some ramps, break off a piece of leaf and give it the sniff test. Does it smell like onions or garlic? Yes? Good for you. But don't get too greedy -- only harvest about 15 to 25 percent of the clump, otherwise there will be no ramps for the next season. And only harvest from healthy beds, not areas that have already been overharvested. Practice sustainable foraging.

Note that ramps look very similar to the poisonous Lily of the Valley, probably owing to the fact that they are from the same family. So sniff before you taste.

Nutrition

Ramps are high in vitamins A and C. And ramps, as mentioned previously, are consumed as a folk medicine in Appalachia as a spring tonic to cleanse the blood. 

What to Do with It

Ramps are a seasonal substitute for any recipe that calls for spring onions, scallions or garlic.

Cooking

Ramps can be readily sautéed, chopped up and added to scrambled eggs, pickled or served in a springtime risotto. They have a peppery, garlicky bite that gives them a bit of a stinky reputation, but that shouldn't put you off of them.

Ramps, unlike the conventional leek, require little cleaning. Just give them a good rinse, trim the root hairs and they are ready for cooking. Or you can eat them raw if you're feeling especially adventurous. But if you do, note that they are called the King of Stink for a reason!

Storage

Once foraged, ramps only last three or four days before perishing. To store, loosely wrap in a paper towel and place in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag. Ramps can be frozen, but I'd stick to freezing the bulbs and using the leaves fresh.

Stretching your fresh food dollar through food preservation

While ramps have a short shelf life, they can be pickled or made into pesto, extending an otherwise brief culinary appearance.

Recipe

Ramps and Taters

In keeping with their humble origins, here's a simple, down home recipe for your seasonal haul of ramps. I've adapted this from a recipe from the Chickens in the Road blog.

Ingredients

3 medium sized potatoes
1 bunch of ramps
6 slices of bacon
4 free-range eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse your potatoes of any extra dirt, then chop them up into thumb sized pieces. I prefer to keep the skin on, but if you like your taters without skin, peel them before chopping.

Bring a pot of water to boil that's big enough to hold your taters, cooking them until they are al dente. You will know they are done when a knife easily pieces them, but not too done that the potato has started to crumble. Drain and set aside.

While your taters are cooking, give your ramps a good rinse. When clean, pat them dry and then slice off the root tops. Then take your remaining ramps and cut into 1-inch pieces, both white tops and greens. Set aside.

In a large skillet, fry up your slices of bacon over medium low heat. I find that bacon cooks unevenly and burns when the burner is turned up too high. Let "low and slow" be your mantra. The bacon is done when small white bubbles begin to form over your slices. Remove the bacon from the pan, blot the excess grease with a paper towel and chop them up, setting aside.

In the skillet with your reserved bacon fat, cook your ramps and your potatoes over medium-high heat. When the potatoes start to crisp up, crack your eggs one by one over the tater and ramp mixture. If you like your eggs scrambled, scramble them into the mixture. If you like your eggs sunny side up, cover the skillet for about a minute as the eggs cook in the steam. Add some salt and pepper and you're all done. Makes for a tasty farmers' market breakfast!

Serves 4.

This post was originally published in March 2013.