"Ramp Up the Flavor"
For many Southern Highlanders, the end of winter is marked by a patch of green plumes on a wooded hillside or stream bank. Wild leeks, also known as ramps, show up in late April as the days grow longer and warmer. Their appearance is brief, lasting only a month before their leaves wilt, leaving the bulbs hidden under the leafy forest floor.
Perhaps owing to their abbreviated season, ramps are considered a gastronomic delicacy. Haute chefs race to incorporate these wild edibles into their recipes, adding a garlicky-onion flavor to salads, meat sides, sauces, and butters. Kaighn Raymond, Executive Chef, and owner of Frog's Leap Public House in Waynesville, NC says "Ramps signify the start of the culinary season in Southern Appalachia and reconnect us with our local foragers in the first weeks of spring. At the beginning of ramp season, the bulbs are small, and the flavor is relatively mild, much like a garlic chive. But as the season advances the bulbs become much larger and the real ramp flavor emerges. The ramp is a wild leek but in it's maturity has a more robust, spicy quality than any other member of the family I have come across. In the beginning of ramp season we usually chiffonade the whole ramp and add to dishes just before serving such as a local version of pasta primavera or risotto, we also lightly grill these young ramps. As the flavor grows we start making butters and pesto which we use on everything from mussels to wood grilled lamb chops. At the end of ramp season we get a large amount and separate the bulbs from the greens. We pickle the bulbs and make a large batch of butter with the greens if we have them left. Grilled ramps make an excellent vinaigrette which we us on meats as well as other grilled vegetables. We use ramps raw, lightly cooked and even tempura fried. But we usually add fresh ramps at the end of the cooking process to preserve the texture and flavor. There is almost no dish that can't be done with the addition of ramps in some form. We look forward to ramp season all winter! We have a wonderful ramp pesto that we use as a garnish for soups such as potato or white bean, as a sauce for grilled meats, especially lamb and beef, as a sauce for flatbreads or pasta and much more!"
To find ramps in the wild, take a walk in the woods, looking for a north-facing slope covered by a hardwood canopy. Moist soil is essential for ramps and they may be located near a stream or boggy area. The will appear in a patch of green, ribbon-like leaves with burgundy stems as they spring from the ground. Using a trowel or small gardening spade, gently dig up one-third of the clump, leaving the remaining two-thirds for future growth.
Preparing ramps for cooking is simple. Wash the bulb and leaves thoroughly and remove the cellophane-like outer layer from the bulb. The leaves and bulb are both edible and can be coarsely chopped, then added directly to scrambled eggs or fried potatoes in the skillet. If you are feeling adventurous, try Chef Raymond's recipe below and ramp up the flavor!
-May 8, 2018 by Mike Gillespie