If you’re wondering why you’d never heard of ramps prior to a few years ago, you’d be in good company. While the allium tricoccum is native to Ontario, it’s only in the past few years that this member of the onion family has become popular. So popular in fact that the foodies are flocking to buy them and the anti-foodies are casting them aside. Which, while the things are darn tasty, may not be a bad idea, given that they’re considered to be a “threatened species” in Quebec and parts of the US.
To many people ramps signal spring – the first bits of edible greenery after a long hard winter. Ramps are considered a special delicacy in the southern US states, particularly in Appalachia where ramp festivals attracting thousands of people take place every spring in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The popularity in local, seasonal and foraged foods means that many high-end restaurants are now serving them as well.
With this many people freaking out over ramps, it’s no wonder they’re considered exploited or threatened in various places. Quebec bans restaurants from serving them, and individuals in that province may harvest no more than 50 bulbs for personal use. Harvesting a ramp means pulling the whole plant, including its roots, out of the ground. Unethical harvesters can clear a whole patch of ramps, leaving nothing behind to propagate for the following year. The recommended harvest per season is no more than 5% to 10% of a wild patch.
So why all the fuss? Tasting like a cross between onions and garlic, and as easy to work with as a green onion, ramps, sometimes known as wild leeks or wild garlic, are incredibly versatile. Use them where ever you’d use onions or garlic, add them to eggs or potatoes, or make pesto out of them. The flavour is pungent and distinctive and “greener” than other members of the onion family.
I’m not going to go so far as to tell readers to boycott ramps. There are plenty of farmers and foragers in the Toronto area who are harvesting ramps ethically and who are ensuring there are enough left behind so there will be ramps for years to come. But please do find an ethical source for your ramps (or eat them at restaurants that use ethical sources), and don’t be greedy – buy enough for a dish or two, just for a treat, and then move on to the other delights of spring so everyone has a chance to have some ramps before the short season has ended. And when you’re cooking them up, treat them like the star ingredient they are. Here are some recipes that will do just that.
Risotto with Ramps, Aged Cheddar and Bacon
from Jesse Vallins, Chef de Cuisine, Trevor Kitchen and Bar
Serves six as an appetizer
8oz bacon diced
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 fresh bay leaf
1-1/2 cups of carnaroli rice
1/2 cup white wine
5 cups chicken stock, brought to a boil
1/2 cup ramps, chopped fine
1/2 cup of good quality aged cheddar, such as cru de clocher
1 tbsp unsalted butter
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cook the bacon in a heavy bottomed pot until is renders its fat and becomes crispy. Remove the bacon carefully with a slotted spoon and reserve. Pour off all but two tablespoons of the bacon fat; reserve for another use, don’t throw it away. If you throw away bacon fat your parents are probably cousins.
Over medium heat, sauté the onion with the bay leaf in the bacon fat until just starting to brown and add the rice. Stir the rice constantly until it is hot to the touch.
Add the white wine and cook it out until all the liquid has evaporated. Add the chicken stock one ladle at a time, stirring constantly and adding more stock as is absorbs into the rice. This will take about 15 minutes.
When the rice is almost soft add the chopped wild leeks and the last of the chicken stock and cook until the rice is soft but still has a little bite to it.
Stir in the butter, cheddar and reserved bacon, taste for seasoning and remove the bay leaf. Serve immediately in warm bowls.
Ramps and Cottage Cheese
from Christopher Palik, Executive Chef, L-Eat Catering and Paese Ristorante
1 250ml container of your favourite cottage cheese
1/4 pound of fresh ramps
Day old baguette
Some good extra virgin olive oil
Cracked black pepper
You need: an oven, mixing bowl, bread knife, paring knife, cutting board, rubber spatula, pepper mill, a small sauce pot, paper towels, a baking sheet, a good bottle of white wine or 6 cold Mill Street Organic beers. Think of this as posh, local, french onion dip.
Pre-heat the oven to 350F, and feel free to open a beverage of your choice. Place a small pot of water on the stove, toss in a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Have ready a small bowl of cold water. Clean the ramps of all dirt and using the paring knife separate the leaves from the bulbs. Start by placing the bulbs in the boiling water, cook for about 30 seconds, then place in the leaves and cook for another 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, strain the ramps and place into the cold water. Cool for about a minute in the cold water then strain again. Dry the ramps between a few sheets of paper towel.
With the bread knife cut the baguette into thin slices, about a half inch thick. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet, drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil, season with a pinch of salt and place in the oven. Bake for about 5 minutes. Allow to cool. Coarsely chop the ramps. Grind about a tablespoon of fresh cracked pepper into the cottage cheese and stir to combine. Take each baguette slice and mound a bit of the chopped ramps then place a spoon of the cottage cheese mixture on top. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. Serve!
To make things easier stir the chopped ramps, cottage cheese and salt together then drizzle over the extra virgin olive oil. Use it like a dip with the toasted baguette. If cottage cheese is not your favourite then it’s not really a problem. You could substitute ricotta, cream cheese or soft goat’s cheese and the results would be equally as good. Enjoy.