What Are... Ramps?
Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a type of wild onion found in North America, similar in appearance to scallions, but with large green leaves and a particularly spicy flavor that mellows out slightly with cooking. Their appearance in farmers markets, specialty stores, and — for the truly fortunate — backyards, heralds the arrival of spring, and their popularity is evidenced in the menus of many farm-to-table, seasonally driven restaurants across the country.
Trendy? Check. Rare? Indeed. Expensive? Of course — if the first two are true, then a food item is most certainly bound to be expensive, and ramps are no exception. But the thing that matters most is whether they are worth eating. And yes, indeed, they are delicious.
Whether they are cooked up with some scrambled eggs and served up with fried potatoes and bacon, simply sautéed or grilled, worked into a savory pancake batter, or placed atop a grilled pizza with some melted brie, ramps add a pronounced flavor that's a cross between garlic and onion when cooked, and when raw, make a spicy and pungent addition (in moderation) to salads, dressings, and dips. In general, they can stand in wherever leeks and scallions are called for in a recipe, although a good rule of thumb is to keep the preparations simple so as to allow their flavor to shine.
The freshest ramps have bright green leaves and vibrant white bulbs. The stem between the leaf and the bulb should either go straight from white to green or have a slightly purple color, but avoid bunches with orange or yellow stems. And the most obvious sign that a bunch of ramps is past its prime are wilted leaves. Ramps will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to three days when wrapped up in a paper towel and placed in a plastic bag (left slightly open or perforated to allow some air to penetrate).
The ramps season is generally short, usually lasting just a few weeks in spring, but sometimes it can run all the way from March through July, depending on the region. It's no wonder then that one of the most popular things to do with ramps is to pickle them — usually just the white bulbs; it's a great way to hedge against the unpredictability of the season, and it's a versatile condiment that can make its way into everything from wraps to burgers. (Photo courtesy of flickr/In Praise of Sardines)
Their popularity has caused a bit of controversy — it's a bit reminiscent of the whole issue with orange roughy, a fish native to New Zealand, or perhaps the Chilean sea bass, to cite a more recent example, both of which are long-lived species and slow to reproduce, and whose populations have been endangered by overfishing. Similarly, ramps take a very long time to grow, about 15 years, and they are a favorite ingredient of chefs. With the continued public reverence for chefs, demand has surged, and Mother Nature is having a hard time keeping up with foragers.
So yes, give them a try, once or twice, and enjoy them, savor them, and appreciate them. (And of course, pickle them.) And even though it is just a vegetable, think of it as a rare treat, perhaps like caviar, or foie, or abalone. At first blush, the comparison may seem a bit ridiculous, but it's not without merit — if the season seems too short now, imagine how much they'll be missed once there's no season at all. With a little moderation, perhaps they'll still be around in the future for many more generations to enjoy.