Doing more than one thing at a time, that’s where farmers and food professionals excel. While a normal day for me might be slow cooking a chunk of meat that will provide meals all week while doing laundry as I keep an eye on young stock being trained to electric netting while I muck out the barn as I listen to the new book from my favorite author, today that’s not the kind of multi-tasking I’m talking about. No, I’m going to explain how some of the goodies you find at the farmers market can offer multiple iterations. My inspiration came from a customer who complained about the price for a bunch of fancy onions, a.k.a.—ramps.
Seriously dude? Let me tell you about the value of those ramps.
Yes, Allium tricoccum—ramps—will cost you around $20 a pound, but like truffles, sweetbreads and a well-aged Macallan single malt, the rarity of this harbinger of spring is what makes for a pricy onion.
But don’t they grow wild? Absolutely! While ramps do produce seeds, there’s no guarantee they’ll reproduce when purposely planted. Ramps are native to damp, shaded areas of the forest, the complete opposite of commercial agriculture. As a foraged crop, as opposed to cultivated, ramps run the risk of being depleted when over harvested which is why many farmers keep mum about their location. I’ve heard once too often a farmer lament thieves sneaking in and decimating a prized area they’d been sustainably harvesting for years. Sometimes the area bounces back after several years, sometimes it doesn’t.
Additionally, ramps are highly seasonal, appearing at the spring thaw and lasting a little more than a month before going to seed and retreating back into the soil until next year.
There are four parts to the plant: the leaves, the stalk, the bulb, and the rhizome, each quite useful in its own way. Although most people tend to chop up the entire plant to use in cooking, I’ve found that I can part them out into individual components to enjoy now, during the year and hopefully, for years to come.
Let’s start with the leaves. Unlike most members of the onion family which have hollow leaves, ramps have one or two broad flat leaves that are two to ten inches in length. Their strong, pungent flavor holds well in thinly sliced ribbons both raw and cooked. Macerated with a little olive oil, they make a delightful pesto perfect for tossing with pasta. For those of us who want a little luxury year-round, the leaves can be frozen or dried. You get lots of leaves in a $5 bunch of ramps, plenty to last until next season.
The stalk is the thin neck that supports the leaves as it rises out of the bulb. They tend to be reddish purple in color and can be as thick as a pencil in larger specimens, but generally the width of a piece of thick spaghetti. I use these for cooking. They get tossed in the pan with whatever I’m cooking until they are translucent, releasing their aroma and flavor. If I’m feeling decadent I’ll use the bulb, too, but I prefer to save them for my favorite thing to do with ramps—pickle them.
My first introduction to pickled ramps was when a friend who harvests his land for New York City chefs showed up at the farm with a jar for making Rampatinis. We spent a sultry summer afternoon sipping cocktails on the porch and I was hooked on pickled ramps. A few years later pickled ramps showed up on a charcuterie board at the home of Mitch Berliner and Deb Moser, founders of Central Farm Markets. After a particularly slow week at market thanks to cold, spring weather, a few weeks later jars of pickled ramps showed up at market offered by the same vendor who sold them fresh. I’ve used them in salads, in cocktails and even for snacking.
I realize not everyone will be able to use the fourth part of the ramp—the rhizome. Rhizomes are rootstalks which develop from axillary buds and grow horizontally with new shoots growing upwards. You will find the beginning of an axillary bud in the center of the roots at the tip of the bulb. Some vendors trim off the roots completely, but the ones who leave the roots intact offer you the ability to give planting ramps a try if you have the right environment. From now on I will always plant my ramp roots down by where the drainage from the fields enters the riparian flood plain under a stand of mature deciduous trees. Maybe some day I’ll have my own patch.
So pick up a bunch of ramps while they are in season and give them a try. You can divide them into their individual parts using each one for something different or toss them whole with a little olive oil and caramelize them on the grill. However you choose to use them, trust me, they are well worth the price. Rampatini is one part Ploughman Cider Plenum Vermouth, two parts Butterfly Spirits Elderberry Vodka, a splash of ramp juice topped with a pair of pickled ramps. Ramps are pickled using David Chang’s recipe.