When spring comes to Maine, it always reminds me of the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when the film morphs from black and white to color. That’s how strong the sensations are when the grayish piles of snow melt and the landscape suddenly turns emerald green.
Many head to the beach to walk the rocky shoreline, but I go to the woods. I pack the dog into the car and head to a secret spot where ramps, or wild leeks, grow. We tromp down steep hills, careful of the thick patch of slippery dry leaves, and follow a stream overflowing with spring rains until we come upon a patch of brilliant green leaves popping out of the ground.
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There you are in the woods, with the scent of mulch, spring air and the mineral freshness of flowing water when your nose fills with the bite of raw onion. Ramps, allium tricoccum, are a member of the lily family; the leaves resemble longer, wider, more elegant lily of the valley. If you’re out foraging and you pull up a leaf and your nose is not assaulted by the strong scent of onion, then you don’t have a ramp. Carefully dig through the earth and you’ll discover a white, scallion-like bulb, covered in a thin, brown “skin” attached to the green leaves.
Ramps a growing food trend
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 made a poultice from the juice of the bulb to remove the itch and sting of bee bites. Ramps contain a good amount of vitamins C and A.
These days ramps are all the rage. You find them on the menu at cutting-edge restaurants and at farmers markets, gourmet grocery stores and vegetable stands, where they can sell for more than $20 a pound. Ramp salad, ramp tart, ramp sauces, ramp pasta, ramp pizza … Ramps are to 2013 what sun-dried tomatoes were in the 1980s.
The thing to understand about ramps is that, like truffles, another foraged food, a little goes a long way. When raw, ramps have an overwhelming smell like a cross between wild onions and dirty socks. But cooking them brings out their delicate and unique flavor. I like to describe their taste this way: Imagine taking a leek, a clove of garlic, a sweet Vidalia-type onion, a scallion and a shallot, put them all into a machine and extract the single-most distinguishing flavor element from each. Ramps taste like the best of the allium or the onion family with a depth of flavor that can highlight even the most ordinary foods: grilled cheese and ramp sandwiches, a ramp and spring mushroom tart, ramp soup, ramp pasta sauces, and ramp purée used much like pesto.
When you add ramps to a hot skillet with just a touch of olive oil, something extraordinary happens. The leaves hit the heat and begin to puff up like they’re alive and dancing. As the scallion-like bulb softens and becomes tender, the greens wilt, softening into the fragrant oil. Crack a good country egg on top of the sautéed ramps and eat them with crusty bread.
For lunch or dinner, make a French-style bistro salad flavored with ramps. Top spring greens with a poached egg, sautéed ramps, paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese, a slice of proscuitto, and toss with a thick, mustardy-chive vinaigrette.
I also love making a simple ramp butter: blanch ramps in boiling water for 30 seconds, refresh them in ice cold water and dry thoroughly. Blend with butter and place a small dab of ramp butter on grilled steaks, leg of lamb, swordfish, scallops, sautéed shrimp or risotto.
Bistro-Style Salad with Ramps, Poached Eggs and Proscuitto With a Mustard-Chive Vinaigrette
You can prepare the ramps and vinaigrette several hours before serving. Poach the eggs for 3 minutes, just until the whites set and the yolk is still runny. When you cut into the egg, the yolk coats the salad with its creamy richness.
For the salad:
4 cups mesclun greens or a mixture of bitter greens like frisée, radicchio and arugula
1½ tablespoons olive oil
12 ramps, washed and thoroughly dried, with the root end trimmed off
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 thin slices proscuitto, less than ⅛ pound
8 paper-thin slices Parmesan cheese (cut with a vegetable peeler)
4 very fresh eggs
For the mustard vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1½ tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
¼ cup olive oil
For the salad greens:
1. Clean the greens and dry thoroughly; set aside.
2. Heat a medium skillet with 1½ tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat. Add the ramps and let cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, or until the greens have puffed up and the white scallion-like bulb is tender. Remove from the heat and set aside.
For the vinaigrette:
Whisk together all the ingredients in a small bowl and taste for seasoning. The recipe can be made ahead of time up to this point. Cover and refrigerate the greens, ramps and vinaigrette.
To poach the eggs:
1. Bring a shallow skillet full of water to a boil over high heat.
2. Meanwhile, toss the greens with the vinaigrette and place on a large platter or in a shallow bowl. Arrange the proscuitto slices on top of the greens and arrange the ramps on top. Scatter the cheese slices over the salad.
3. Reduce the heat under the water to moderate and carefully crack the eggs into the water, one at a time; cook for 3 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and place carefully on top of the salad. Add a grinding of black pepper and serve.
Top photo: Bistro-Style Salad with Ramps, Poached Eggs and Proscuitto With a Mustard-Chive Vinaigrette. Credit: Kathy Gunst