Ramping Up

It’s time to search out this spring tonic.

Ramps and trout lilies Photo by Maggie Fry

It’s ramp season! For those of you who are not used to foraging, ramps are wild leeks that pop up along the banks of creeks and streams in the spring. They are smaller than domestic leeks, but have a much stronger flavor.

I take a bucket and a trowel–or a spading fork, if I can’t find the trowel, like yesterday—and head to the bend in the little stream near my house. It’s easy to walk in the woods this time of year because the undergrowth hasn’t leafed out yet. There among the dry fallen leaves a patch of brilliant green glows in the sunlight. Ramps are ready to gather when their flat leaves are about eight to ten inches long. They usually grow along with skunk cabbage, which has the wonderful scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidusis, because it smells like rotting flesh, especially if you step on the leaves. Skunk cabbage is also edible, but I find the odor so off-putting that I have never been willing to try it. Supposedly the odor goes away once you cook it, but you still have to get it to the house, and that’s a long walk with a bucket of stinky leaves.

I remember digging ramps one spring on a cloudy day. As I got to the patch, the sun came out and a lone ray fell on a green snake curled up in among the ramps. It was so beautiful. Giving the snake a wide berth, I dug up what I wanted, and the little reptile never moved. I found out later that skunk cabbage can perform a chemical reaction that produces enough heat to melt the snow around it. I wonder if the little snake was enjoying the warmth?

It’s important to remember the rules of foraging when you harvest anything in the wild. Don’t take more than a third of what is there. This way the plant can replenish itself and there will be a supply for the future. I usually take far less than that.

Ramp Spread

My mother used to make a spread every spring when the ramps were ready. I made a version of it the other day that comes pretty close to what I remember. Here are the ingredients:

4 oz. softened cream cheese

2 T. mayonnaise

1 t. Worcestershire sauce

¼ t. black pepper—white pepper would be good, but I didn’t have any and I wasn’t going to chance going to the store

1 C. shredded cheddar cheese

4-6 ramps

Mix up the first four ingredients until they are well blended. Wash the ramps and cut off the roots. Chop fine and add to the spread. This is how my mom made it, but I decided to add some cheddar cheese and it was a good choice. Spread it on crackers, crostini or toasted slices of baguette.

Ramps and Wild Greens

Ramps have long been considered a spring tonic, that shot of green people craved in the days before refrigerated trucks and frequent produce deliveries. After eating out of the root cellar all winter, our ancestors were thrilled to see those green flags waving in the woods. They also pair well with strong-tasting spring greens like mustard, garlic mustard, and dandelion greens. Rinse the harvested leaves in cold water. It’s a good idea to do it a couple of times. Then coarsely chop the greens and set aside. From here, you have many directions you can go. The Pennsylvania Dutch side of my family used to make wilted greens by melting some bacon grease in a heavy skillet, then sautéing the greens. When the greens are wilted, add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar. Ramps are very good in this, too.

You can also go in the Mediterranean direction and sauté the greens and ramps in olive oil with some garlic and red pepper flakes. Sprinkle with grated parmesan before serving. If you prefer an Asian influence, stir fry garlic and ginger in oil, then add the greens and sliced ramps. Add a table spoon of soy sauce and a bit of sesame oil.

Preserving Ramps

I prefer to eat ramps when they are fresh, but some people chop them and dehydrate them for later use. You can also pickle them in brine as you would cucumbers or green beans. Whatever you decide to do with them, be aware that they give off a pungent odor. I have been known to binge so heavily on ramps that you could smell me from four feet away. I can see a definite advantage to this at this time of social distancing.

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