Down East 2013 ©
Have you ever met someone new and been so taken with them that you wondered how you lived your whole life up to that point without them? I know it sounds dramatic, but that's how I feel about ramps. I'd never encountered them (or more importantly tasted them) until a few years ago. It was as if my palette had never known such a pure, vivid, lively flavor. It's a flavor I now call the essence of spring.
Ramps have no subtlety. They don't whisper.
They scream ,"Here I am and you can't ignore me." Ramps look like small scallions, their pinkish-white bulbs, rounded, and petite, attached to startlingly beautiful pale pinkish-green stems. When raw their odor can be overwhelming - a cross between wild onions and dirty socks.
The flavor of a ramp reminds me of something a mad scientist might concoct: a leek, clove of garlic, sweet Vidalia-type onion, scallion, and a shallot - all mixed up - with the single-best element extracted from each. Ramps have a depth of flavor that can highlight even the most ordinary foods.
Although your first taste may appear delicate and subtle, within seconds the flavor expands - suddenly there is a pleasingly peppery bite toward the back of your mouth. The taste let's you know this is no ordinary vegetable.
According to the late R.W. Apple, Jr., writing in the New York Times, "The origin of the name is in dispute. Most authorities, including the Department of Agriculture, consider `ramp' a shortened form of `ransom,' which is an old name for the European counterpart of the ramp, Allium ursinum or bear garlic. `Ramson' is thought by some to come from the Old English word for wild leeks, hramsen, and by others, of a more romantic case of mind, to denote `son of ram,' Aries being the sign under which ramps appear."
The late wild foods expert Euell Gibbons called ramps "the sweetest and the best of the wild onions." Early Native Americans used them as a medicinal herb to "cure" coughs and colds, and to make a poultice from the juice of the bulb to remove the itch and sting of bee bites. Ramps contain a good amount of Vitamin C.
The appearance of ramps in late April is a true rite of spring, a sign that fresh, wild foods have once again emerged. Ramps grow along the Eastern shore of the U.S. and up into Canada (they are particularly dense in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee). They don't generally appear in Maine until mid-May when foragers hunt them down in dense, woody areas. They are hand-dug and must be some kind of challenge to find because they can cost a small fortune. I found them recently at Golden Harvest in Kittery, Maine, where they were going for close to $15 a pound. But ramps are light (meaning if you only buy a quarter of a pound you'll still have a whole lot of ramps to go around) and since their flavor is so powerful, a little goes a long way.
Ramps can be substituted for regular leeks, but because they are stronger, you need far less of them. Try them saut`ed with olive oil, added to salads and soups; add them to a tart or quiche; chop a tablespoon of saut`ed ramps and stir them into vinaigrettes. They give great depth of flavor when sprinkled on top of grilled steak, chicken or seafood or when folded into omelets, scrambled eggs, and frittatas. You can also roast them with chicken or spring lamb.
The first-of-the-season Maine ramps motivated me to make this salad - a combination of roasted golden beets, saut`ed ramps and ramp greens, and caramelized walnuts. The beets appear to be the star of this dish, but don't be fooled! The ramps, and the ramp greens, steal the show.
Roasted Beet Salad with Ramps, Ramp Greens, and Caramelized Walnuts
Don't be scared off by the long title of this salad. There are three or four steps to it -all of which can and should happen ahead of time-and then it's assembled into a fabulously colored, richly textured, flavored salad. The ramps and the beets are a wonderful combination. Serve as a main course with warm biscuits or bread or as a first course.
Preheat the oven to 425. Wrap the beets into tight little aluminum foil bundles (about 2 to 3 beets per package) and place on the middle shelf. Roast about 45 minutes to 1 hour and 10 minutes or until tender in the center when tested with a small, sharp knife. Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and peel the beets and set aside. (The beets can be roasted a day ahead of time. Peel and wrap in foil and refrigerate until ready to assemble the salad.)
Clean the ramps: Wash the ramps and remove the outer skin on the white scallion-like bulb. Dry the ramps well. Cut the greens from the scallion-like bulb and set aside. Trim the roots off the bulb.
In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the bulb (white) part of the ramp, salt and pepper and saut` for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until tender and golden brown. Place the ramps on paper towel to drain. Chop the reserved greens into 1-inch pieces and place in the skillet over moderate heat. Saut`, season with salt and pepper, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and reserve.
In the same skillet, heat the butter over moderate heat. Add the walnuts, salt and pepper and saut` about 6 to 8 minutes, or until golden. Add the honey, stir well and cook about 5 minutes until the walnuts are glazed and gooey. Remove from the heat and place the walnuts on a plate or paper towel and separate them and let them cool.
Make the vinaigrette: in a small bowl, stir the mustard, salt, and pepper. Add the vinegar and whisk or stir until smooth. Add the oil and whisk or stir until smooth. Add the chives or parsley and taste for seasoning.
The salad can be made 24 hours ahead of time up to this point. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble.
To assemble the salad: place the arugula or greens on a large salad plate or bowl. Thinly slice the beets and arrange in several lines across the arugula, overlapping them slightly. Top the beets with the saut`ed ramps.
Add small clusters of the saut`ed ramp greens in dollops on top of the salad. Scatter the nuts on top and drizzle half the dressing on top. Serve the remaining dressing on the aside. Serves 4 to 6.