Ramps!

Ramps are a plant that rural folk have collected in the east down to the Southern Appalachians and parts of the Midwest for many generations. I imagine after a long cold winter with few fresh vegetables, and last summer’s home-canned vegetables nearly gone, this pungent onion/garlic green would taste awfully good. As a bonus, ramps are loaded with vitamin C. The ramp season is short since they grow in the spring in deciduous forests before the leaves come out. After just a few weeks, in late April or thereabouts here in the North Carolina mountains, leaf growth blocks the sun and the ramps die back for another year.

Fresh ramp bunches

Fresh ramp bunches

So what are ramps? Members of the lily family, they are alliums along with chives, onions, garlic and leeks. They have a small white bulb, burgundy stems at ground level and wide, soft, green leaves above that are reminiscent of lily of the valley leaves. You will know you’ve got a ramp by the pungent aroma that surrounds it when you pull it up.

Ramps grow in clumps and return year after year where foragers leave a healthy supply in the ground. Now that these little jewels are trendy and served at top restaurants in NYC and elsewhere, there are some shortages in the Northeast where foragers are harvesting every last ramp to sell. Kind of like killing the goose who laid the golden eggs.

Clean ramps

Clean ramps

The ones I cooked today came from the back of a pickup on the road side. They were harvested the day before at about 5,000 feet of elevation. The fellows who dug them said they harvested as many as they could before the hard frost fell the night before. We chatted as he wrapped my bunches to keep the root dirt from falling off in the car. I asked who was buying ramps these days. He lamented that most newcomers to the mountains don’t know about ramps so some days are busy and some are slow. He seemed happy that I knew what they were. In the car, the ramp aroma was heady and wonderful.

At home, I shook off some of the dirt and carefully rinsed off the rest. By this time, the garlicky smell was filling the house. After patting the ramps dry, I snipped the roots off and cut off the bulbs. The bulbs went into the pan where my husband had just cooked a couple of thick local pork chops. I splashed in a little white wine and let it cook off. When the bulbs were tender, I added the ramp stem and leaves, salt and pepper and a few tablespoons of water and cooked until the leaves wilted and the water disappeared. The key is to stop cooking the leaves before they exude an okra-like slime. The whole cooking process took only 7-8 minutes; just long enough for the chops to rest.

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We’re big veggie eaters so in addition to the pork chops and ramps, we had a chopped salad with all kinds of things from the frig and garden tossed with sherry vinegar and olive oil. This dinner truly tasted like spring!

Arugula Pesto with Angel Hair Pasta

Late last fall I planted a raised bed with arugula seeds. Arugula is one of my favorite greens and the thought of having it on a dreary winter day made me deliriously happy. We affixed flexible hoops to the sides of the bed and covered them with a large piece of frost cloth held down by rocks. Not exactly high-tech, but it works. Arugula is a cool weather crop so does well in winter if you protect it from the harshest weather.  

IMG_1765Winter gardening is almost carefree at our scale; no bugs, no watering if it snows and rains, and best of all, no weeds. We had spicy arugula all winter. It’s oddly wonderful to harvest salad greens on a cold night when snow is starting to fall! 

After five months in the ground, the arugula is budding and flowering in preparation for setting seed. We harvested all of it and I’m making pesto to eat now and some to freeze. I hate to waste even a leaf of the stuff! 

The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare meaning to pound or crush. In the old days, they used a mortar and pestle (pestle comes from the same  Italian root word), but I use a food processor. Arugula is fibrous so really needs the sharp blades to break it down. A blender will work in a pinch for basil pesto, but will jam and bind with the arugula fibers. Trust me on this; I speak from experience.

IMG_1771Pesto is usually a combination of these: something green (arugula, basil, parsley,  mint, green beans, etc.), some nuts (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts), garlic, salt and pepper, olive oil and grated Parmesan or other hard cheese. Once you’ve made it a few times, you can improvise and make it your own.  

photo (15)With all those flowers and buds in the arugula patch, I had to do a taste test. Turns out they are tender and spicy with a hint of sweetness. I threw some into the processor with the pesto ingredients and added the rest to a salad where they looked and tasted great. 

The best part of pesto-making is tossing the pesto with hot pasta; the heat softens the cheese, marries the flavors and sets the emerald-green color of the arugula. I want some now!

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Periwinkle Raised Beds

It finally feels like spring is really here. Just a few days after all that snow, the wind stopped and the sun came out big time.  You can pretty much see the grass growing. Paul ordered parts to tune up the miniature John Deere and that’s a true sign!

photo (11)He also built new raised beds that I painted periwinkle blue. They are waist height so we should have fewer weeds and no bending! The heirloom, cool weather plant starts are already in and seeds are germinating in the garage for planting after our frost date.

I learned the hard way not to let the warm days fool me. One year we yielded to temptation and planted on the first of May; guess what, a hard frost on May 9th. I may have uttered an inappropriate word or two as I replaced all those frozen plants. The old folks around here say not to plant tender things until after Mother’s Day and I’m taking their advice!

The four-week chicks have graduated from the laundry room to the garage. They’ve outgrown their large plastic tub and live in a huge box courtesy of the new book shelf in my office.  Paul made a frame with hardware cloth for the top to contain the flying chicks. They are light and have big wings so can really fly!

photo (12)They spent their first afternoon in the yard and loved it; started scratching and pecking immediately. A frenzy ensued when I tossed a few earth worms into the pen. I’m always amazed that they know what to do without having a mom.

Baby with her eight-week old flock. That upright tail is a classic characteristic of her breed, Sumatra.

Baby with her eight-week old flock. That upright tail is a classic characteristic of her breed, Sumatra.

The 8-week olds look like real chickens now and are spending a little less time with their Mom, Baby. Baby is a Sumatra, a breed from Indonesia that likes the woods and jungle and doesn’t like containment. Before she had chicks, she slept in a tree. Now she sleeps in a nest box in the coop with her wings over all three even though they are pretty darn big. The four of them spend a good bit of time in the woods, coming home at night to sleep with the flock.

We anxiously await the arrival of our new, larger chicken coop and expect it within a week.  Independence approaches for all the chicks and they’ll need perching space inside at night. In the meantime they own half the garage. We’re thrilled to have the laundry room back and look forward to reclaiming the garage too!