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.
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.
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.
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!