Ramps are hard to describe. Ask shoppers about them at a farmer’s market and you’ll get all sorts of answers; yes, ramps look sort of like scallions, but they have these broad flat green leaves; ramps taste a little bit like amped-up garlic; ramps are too expensive…what makes these bewildering greens so dear to professional cooks? For an answer to that, it’s best to ask a chef.
Jason Wilson, the chef-owner of Seattle’s Miller’s Guild and Bellevue’s The Lakehouse, keeps his kitchens in steps with the seasons. Asked what’s so great about ramps, he replies, “it’s one of my favorite things to work with.”
That’s great, but—apart from indefinable—what are ramps? “They’re wild leeks,” Wilson says.
Yes and no. “Wild leek” is only one of this prized plant’s names. Apart from wild leeks and ramps, these pricey greens have as many aliases as a food critic: amson, wild leek (which is a different plant in Europe), wood leek, spring onions (which are scallions in the UK), and wild garlic. If you’re feeling formal, you can call them allium tricoccum.
Whatever their name, the question is unchanged: What makes ramps so special? “It’s one of the more versatile alliums out there,” Wilson says. “We apply onions and shallots and garlic to everything, across all cuisine. You look at Asia, India, classic Italian, French, etc.—they’re everywhere.”
Ramps aren’t. “Ramps are particular to, originally, the Lowcountry and Michigan,” says Wilson, putting ramps in their place. Found in eastern Canada and the eastern United States, ramps are a North American green. In a Slow Food world, that’s enough to earn them high esteem.
Ramps aren’t sticking to the east, though. They’re spreading, even if they’re taking their short-seasoned time. Wilson happily notes, “They’re slowly making their way to this side of the States.” Seattle’s culinary future will have a new local flavor—or flavors. Ramps change notably as they grow: in shape, taste, and texture.
“These wild leeks have a sweet flavor,” Wilson says. “They get to be full scallion size, with a bulb—but early in the season, they have a delicate softness to them.” At that point, the greens can be truly sweet. In contrast, Wilson says, “the bulbs become nutty.”
How you use them depends not only on which part you’re using, but also on how mature the ramps are. “When they’re very young,” Wilson says, “you can eat the entire thing, sautéed or blanched.” The chef has a confession: “I’ve chewed on them raw, to be frank. When they’re small and young, they’re just delicious like that.” Sounds like the making of a perfect salad.
“As the bulb gets bigger, you’ve got a more versatile use for it.” At that point, Wilson says, you can use them in sautés and sauces and marinades. “Those are all great, but then you can look at how to separate the green and the ‘white’, let’s call it.”
With leeks, he observes, people don’t tend to use the greens. “With ramps, you’ve got a somewhat fibrous but really fresh, super delicious, and unique almost garlic chive and—I liken it to a little bit of toasted almond flavor—in that green that allows you to use it as a pesto, in mayonnaise, to make oil, to make aioli, to chop and use in lieu of scallions. I’ve used it in omelettes, made flans with it; the list goes on and on.”
Forget surf and turf; go with forest (ramps’ homeground) and water. “Look at what’s in season, in this tiny window of the greater year.” Wilson purées ramp greens, which he puts in a broth for halibut, adding a deep green flavor. He also uses ramps to wrap fish. Halibut makes sense in Washington State. When you see ramps in the market, check which fish are fresh in your region.
Asked about preserving ramps, Wilson turns philosophical. “It’s a conversation we’re having more and more about how you commit to season. If you commit to using only what’s available at that time of year, that approach allows you to just use hyper-seasonal ingredients. Then there’s the other way, which I’ve found most farmers I work with use, which is to preserve that time of year and use it around the year.”
From the sound of it, apart from introducing patrons to ramps and watching their faces change with pleasure, setting up for a year of ramps may be one of Wilson’s greatest delights. “When it comes into season, it’s similar to nettles, it’s like a sign of what’s happening. ‘Okay, now it’s time to act quick and prepare.’ Preserving them and using them around the year, I’m grateful for it.”
The simpler the form in which you preserve it, the more options you have. With the greens, Wilson and his team make and freeze ramp purée.
“You’re talking about a labor of love, though,” Wilson says. “ You’re getting these things out of the ground and sand. They’re coming to you dirty. The roots are dirty. You’re washing them, peeling the whites back a little bit, taking the roots off, doing a quick blanch of the greens, and then puréeing them.” There’s nothing to interfere with the flavor of the ramps.
In Wilson’s kitchens, that purée is put into bags and vacuum sealed. At home, you can freeze the purée in ice cubes, put it in freezer bags, and store it in easy-to-use portions. Once you thaw the purée, all directions are open. “We can use it around the year,” Wilson says. “We had it in pasta at the Lake House this August, and it was fantastic.”
Then there are the bulbs. “When the ramps are more mature, you can liken them to pearl onions, in their shape. I like to take those, and we put a nice pickle on them and use them in gimlets.” The pickled onions also appear on charcuterie and cheese plates, and alongside liver mousse.
Whatever else you do with ramps, by whatever name you call them, appreciate every bite. These greens aren’t available for long, they aren’t available in supermarkets, and they aren’t grown in hothouses. Ramps are here and gone, and their “here” is only in the wild. Ramps are gathered by foragers. It’s tempting to go ramp-hunting and grab all you can see, but that isn’t the best choice you can make. It’s easy to overpick them, or to pick them wrong, killing the present plants and future crops. If you do find ramps, take one leaf and leave the bulb where it is. Be mindful; you’re walking in the wild, you might step on something fragile or disturb an unseen nest. Going with a professional forager is an excellent way to learn, and you’ll have ramps and a forest-green story to share at dinner.
For those who can’t trail a forager, the place to find ramps is in farmer’s markets, where they’ll be available for only a few weeks. That’s a brief season, and foragers pick with care for the present and the future, so stands won’t be overflowing with allium tricoccum.
Every ramp you see comes from the wild. “That’s part of the price,” Wilson says, “and it’s relevant to talk about. We buy expensive jeans from people who make them in Brooklyn, and we get great little artisan things from the farmers market—and people are growing them, and those are very hyper-seasonal—and when ramps come around, and we see this big price on these scallion-looking things and we think, ‘well, what do we do with them?’”
Wilson’s answer: get to know ramps in all of their plain, delicate, and complex beauty. “It’s so simple to take them, that first time, and just wash them, put them in butter, add a little bit of salt, sauté them fast, and see what happens. That’s where the gratitude starts.”
Vampires will hate this recipe, so if your house guests tend to glitter, save this for another night. With ramps instead of basil, and three cloves of garlic, this pesto is intensely bold. Use pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, or almonds—whatever’s in the pantry, on sale, or most appealing to your current mood. Use it with pasta, over fish, as a rub for tofu, in rice, or mixed with olive oil as a dip for crusty bread. Resist the urge to soak it all up in one glorious, garlicky week. Freeze some to save the season. Get the recipe.
With ramps, half a cup of Pecorino Romano, olive oil, two kinds of chili, and a topping of homemade breadcrumbs, Mario Batali’s spaghetti recipe passes indulgence and goes directly to decadence. Batali gives permission to swap scallions and garlic for the ramps, but wait until springtime, and dig into this dish when it’s at its ramp-filled best. Get the recipe.
Ramps get pickled for David Chang’s spring pickle plate. Made with shichimi togarishi (Japanese seven spice), Korean crushed red pepper, and rice wine vinegar, these quick pickles are likely to vanish before you know they’re done. Get our Pickled Ramps recipe.
Get seriously seasonal, and be crusty about it, too. Pizza with ramps and fiddlehead counters the sweetness of the greens with the farmyard notes of goat milk cheese. If you are in the “goat cheese is evil” camp, then use shredded Gruyere. Get the recipe.
It may not be easy being green, but it’s a simple pleasure to cook and eat it. This is a risotto to delight your dinner guests and your doctor. In addition to two dozen ramps, it also has minced dill or fennel and a quarter-cup of chopped mixed seasonal greens. No need to mention the amounts of cheese and butter, or the full cup of wine. Get the recipe.
Waste not, want only more leftovers. Risotto’s lovely when it’s fresh and creamy, but this leftover-risotto cake could convert you to the crisp side. With fried ramps, a sunnyside-up egg, and a drizzle of balsamic, this is the perfect way to start or end a day. Get the recipe.
Turn ramps into portable snack food. These muffins marry ramps with freshly grated cheddar and a touch of mustard. While they’re blissfully hot from the oven, they also make excellent picnic food and packed lunches (Hey–protein and veg!), and muffins freeze well, so you can have your ramps and save them, too. Get the recipe.
When you add ramps and morels, flan becomes a rich testament to springtime. This recipe boosts the creaminess with a touch of fresh nutmeg and a little hit of sherry. Get the recipe.
Ramps for breakfast—why not? Savory porridges are popular across Asia. This East-West breakfast takes steel-cut oats, spinach, Parmesan, tamari, and ramps, and turns them into a warm start to the day. Leftovers stay good for four days, which gives you a chance to try this as a hearty side dish at dinnertime. Get the recipe.
Carbonara has it all: carbs, eggs, bacon (here, pancetta), and cheese. With ramps’ sweet, nutty, garlicky, oniony flavors, this carbonara is made to rule them all. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of EatDrinkTC.