It was a gloomy Wednesday in NYC when I visited the Union Square Greenmarket a couple weeks ago. Rain was pelting my face, but I'd given up using my umbrella - it had been flipped inside out by the wind one too many times. Greenmarket purveyors tightened their grips on their tent frames as the wind threatened to blow their wares away. I had to dodge mutiple waves of harried commuters emerging from Union Square station as I made my way from stand to stand.
No one else but me seemed interested in buying produce that day. But that was my strategy in coming this particular morning. On a miserable day such as this, I could have my pick of the crop at the Mountain Sweet Berry Farm stand. Any other day, I'd have to show up at the crack of dawn, ready to battle NYC chefs and foodies for some of Rick Bishop's famous ramps.
Ramps, aka wild leeks, can be found throughout most of Eastern North America, as far north as Quebec and as far south as Georgia. Ramps taste like a combination of sweet scallions and garlic and are notorious for their pungent odor. Their emergence from the soil usually marks the first sign of Spring. Although ramps have been celebrated as a regional delicacy in annual festivals across Appalachia for decades, they've only recently been discovered by chefs and gourmands. Ramps have become so popular that they're almost endangered in some states due to overharvesting. Ramps (or gnovlichgraut,"wild garlic" in Pennsylfaanisch) were used extensively in Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine until they became overharvested at the turn of the century. Interestingly enough, this highly coveted plant is considered a noxious weed in Arkansas!
I have to admit, I've been slow to jump on the ramp bandwagon. My travel schedule over the last few years has often coincided with the short Northeast ramp season. But this year, I wasn't going to let another ramp season pass me by. I began collecting ramp recipes and paid close attention to alerts from Lucy's Greenmarket report. The first ramps finally appeared in NYC at the beginning of April.
And here I was, finally, at the Mountain Sweet Berry Farm stand in Union Square Greenmarket, gawking at an endless display of ramps. A bargain at 2 bunches for $5, I bought as many as could fit into my messenger bag. As it got warmer throughout the day, I noticed an oniony odor emanating from my bag. No worries, I'd anticipated this smelly problem and quickly triple-bagged my stash with some extra plastic bags.
So what to do with all these precious ramps? A mini ramp festival of course! And I made sure to tell hubby Kris to warn all his co-workers about the possible smell that may come out of his pores over the next few days!
Cleaning ramps are a bit time consuming. The ramps were pretty dirty, especially the bulbs. I cut off the roots and removed the outer loose skin and any slimy membrane clinging to the stalk. I gave them a nice soak in a cold water bath, letting any dirt fall to the bottom of the bowl, then rinsed them several more times till clean and spun them dry in my salad spinner.
First up: David Chang's Pickled Ramps. A sharp scallion-y smell hit my nose the moment I poured the boiling pickling liquid over them. While they were cooling down to room temperature, I couldn't help but sniff them everytime I walked by. I was really tempted to try one warm, but I finally put them away to "pickle" overnight in the fridge. They were perfect the next day - tender, sweet, with the shichimi togarashi providing a spicy kick.
Next up, Scott Conant's Ramp Risotto. I made a couple changes to the recipe - I only had arborio rice on hand and I doubled the ramps to 8 (4 just seemed kinda wimpy). And boy did those ramps live up to their smelly reputation when I was chopping them up. But despite their pungent smell, they didn't cause me to tear up the way that onions or shallots do. Make sure you use a good quality white wine because you add some of it halfway through the cooking process so the wine flavor is still quite pronounced. The risotto was delicious - Kris said later that it was better than the ramp risotto he had at the Yankees Legend Suite. I was really surprised at how delicate the cooked ramps tasted, they imparted such a lovely sweet onion flavor to the risotto. I'll definitely be making this again.
I also wanted to make a ramp carbonara, so I searched the internet and found a recipe on Gothamist.com for Pasta with Ramps and Cured Pork. I used pancetta for the cured pork and rendered it till slightly crispy (I hate chewy pancetta) before tossing it with the pasta. Like the risotto, the ramp flavor was very mild but complemented the creaminess of the eggs and the crispy pancetta quite nicely.
I'd also heard that ramps and eggs were a perfect match, so I scrambled up some eggs with lightly sauteed ramps and shredded fontina cheese. Simple and heavenly!
Finally, I tossed the remaining ramps lightly in some olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper and grilled them till lightly charred. I'd meant to serve the grilled ramps with a garlic aoili, but we devoured them before I even remembered about the sauce!
Our favorite way to enjoy ramps? Grilled. Hands down. With a slight char on them, ramps become sweet and utterly irresistible. Even when prepared indoors on a cheap grill pan. Kris' 2nd favorite recipe was the pickled ramps. My runner-up was the ramp risotto (I even ate it cold one night while standing in front of an open fridge).
And just in case you were wondering, we honestly did not smell 'ripe as a ramp' afterwards.
So hurry to your farmer's market to get some ramps before the season's over! Or order them online here. And prepare to fight me off at the greenmarket next year, cause I'm bringing a larger bag!
Rattray, Diana. Ramps and Wild Leeks, a unique and delicious Spring jewel. About.com website.
Allium tricoccum plants profile, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services website.
Weaver, William Woys. Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking. New York, New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.
The Union Square Greenmarket, still pretty in the rain!