Spring has been a long time coming in the Midwest this year. But there is one silver lining to the cold and blustery days: an extended season for wild ramps.
Ramps are also known as wild leeks, wild garlic, or wild onions. According to “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the word ramp comes from “rams” or “ramson,” the Elizabethan words for wild garlic. The wild foods evangelist Euell Gibbons called ramps “the sweetest and the best of the wild onions.”
Native Americans from the Atlantic to the Mississippi knew and loved ramps. To them and to the white settlers who displaced them, ramps were a sparkling and welcome addition to the bland winter diet of roots and grains. The native Menominee people of the area around Lake Michigan called the broad-leaved wild ramps pikwute sikakushia (skunk plant). And they referred to the area near the southern shore of Lake Michigan, where the ramps grew abundantly, as ShicagaWuni or shikako (skunk place), the place we know today as Chicago.
Ramps still grow abundantly in areas similar to pre-urban Chicago. They love moist lowland areas, and are often found near lakes, rivers and streams. Although some have found them on open hillsides, I have only seen them in forested areas, often in the same places where morel mushrooms will appear a few weeks later. In general, they prefer a loose sandy soil rather than heavy clay. So if you’re going to go in search of ramps, head for a low, moist spot in a wooded area with sandy soil.
Secret ramp source in Illinois
For nearly a decade, I have had the pleasure of taking part in a ramp-dig in the spongy black soil of a woodland on a central Illinois farm. The farm shall remain nameless because during the same decade I’ve been digging ramps, their popularity has skyrocketed, particularly at high-end restaurants where chefs routinely pay more than $10 a pound for them. In some places, the huge demand has resulted in ramp-poaching and ramp-overdigging. Unlike the wild nettles that thrive in disturbed soils, ramps are delicate and if aggressively harvested, they can die out.
But in the ramp-carpeted woods with which I’m familiar, we move from clump to clump, leaving great undisturbed swaths in between. As soon as we began digging, our nostrils fill with the musky, pungent earth, and the unmistakable garlic-onion smell of ramps. At this time of year, each underground ramp bulb sends up two or three broad, smooth, oval-shaped leaves — similar to those of lily of the valley — from a purple or burgundy stem about the size and shape of a pencil. Eventually growing 8 to 12 inches tall, these leaves have gorgeous deep maroon streaking at the base and up along the parallel veins.
Versatile and fresh
The entire ramp plant is edible and delicious — leaves, stem, and bulb. More delicate and less hot than regular onions or garlic, ramps have a lingering, woodsy flavor. They are wonderful in salads and soups, and are especially good in omelets, quiches and other egg dishes. You can also put them on pizza or in sandwiches, cooked or raw. For a special treat, try fish wrapped in ramp leaves and grilled.
At the same time ramps are coming into season, baby goats are being born, which means this is also the start of the fresh chevre season. What better way to welcome the new season of earthly delights than with a ramp goat-cheese pasta. I made this one with Leslie Cooperband’s fresh chevre, from Prairie Fruits Farm near Champaign, the state’s only on-farm goat cheesery. If you can’t be sure that your ramps were sustainably harvested, this recipe is also wonderful with the first green garlic of the season.
Ramp Goat Cheese Pasta
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound linguine, spaghetti, or other pasta
¼ cup fresh chevre (or more, from Prairie Fruits Farm)
- Put a large pot of salted water on to boil and begin cooking the pasta.
- Clean the ramps or green garlic, removing the translucent husk over the bulb if they are freshly dug. Slice the stems into ½ to 1 inch lengths, and coarsely chop the greens.
- Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan until just smoking, then pull the pan off the flame, toss in the ramp or garlic stems, and toss well. Return to the heat and sear until blistered, brown, and soft. Remove from heat.
- Drain the pasta as soon as it is al dente, then add to the pan, along with the ramp or garlic leaves and toss until wilted. Stir in the chevre. Transfer to serving plates and grate Pecorino over the top. Finish with a little olive oil, if desired.
Photo: Wild ramps in the woods. Credit: Terra Brockman