What Are Ramps and Why Is Everyone Obsessed With Them?
Each spring, home cooks who are otherwise reasonably disciplined humans lose all inhibitions at the first sight of ramps at their local farmers markets. This broad, leafy vegetable is beloved for its garlicky flavor, which shines in sauces and vinaigrettes, as well its ability to share the spotlight with more readily available alliums like leeks and scallions. Come springtime, ramp season starts (and quickly ends), and this wild plant makes its way into the kitchens of home cooks, food writers, and greenmarket enthusiasts alike.
Ramps tend to grow in the Appalachian mountain range in eastern North America, as far north as Quebec and down through New York, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, all the way to Georgia. Given the demand, biologists say that overharvesting is a major concern, so source your ramps from responsible retailers. Read on for how to buy, store, and cook this delicate green.
What are ramps, anyway?
Ramps (a.k.a. wild leeks or Allium tricoccum) are part of the allium family, which includes other vegetables like chives, garlic, leeks, scallions, and shallots. The word ramps became part of colloquial American English from Southern Appalachia, where it’s a regional word for “spring onion” or “wild leek.” They’re available for just a few months, beginning in early spring and disappearing around mid-May to early June. On first glance, ramps somewhat resemble spring onions; they both have stringy roots and thin stems. Unlike the young onion, ramps’ green tops fan out into broad leaves. Their flavor is undeniably garlicky, which mellows once they’re cooked. Like spring onions, you can eat ramps from top to bulb.
How to buy ’em:
Don’t get your hopes up—you probably won’t find ramps in the average grocery store. Instead, head to a local farmers market, where you’ll have to navigate a crowd of eager cooks who are also stocking up on ramp bundles. Enthusiasts may even find themselves at a ramp festival (the most prominent of which are held in southern Appalachia). When choosing ramps, look for ones that have firm stems, vibrant green leaves, and healthy roots that show no signs of rotting. And bring cash. Lots of cash. Given the short growing window, high demand, and labor-intensive process of harvesting ramps, a pound will cost about $20.
How to store ’em:
Don’t just throw ramps into the crisper drawer of your refrigerator and call it a day. This common mistake will cause this vegetable to wilt prematurely. If you were lucky enough to secure a few bundles of ramps, treat them with care once you bring them home. We recommend gently wrapping the unwashed roots and leaves in damp paper towels and storing in a resealable plastic bag or large airtight container. If stored properly, they should last for at least three to four days.
How to clean ’em:
The first time I ever bought ramps, I felt like I had secured membership to an elite club—only to realize I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. What exactly are you supposed to do with ramps? For starters, wash them thoroughly. “If you thought leeks were dirty, wait’ll you get your hands on ramps,” says former BA editor Rick Martínez. Like leeks, ramps tend to trap a lot of dirt in their leaves and they’ll need more than a quick rinse to remove the grittiness. Instead, rinse thoroughly or even submerge ramps in a large bowl of cool water and swish them around to remove dirt and sand.
How to cook ’em:
Despite the fact that wild ramps have a short growing season, it’s easy to enjoy them for months to come. Preserving them, as in our recipes for pickled ramps and ramp butter, is a great way to stretch out the wild onion flavor they’ll bring to your kitchen. Now, exhale. Even when ramps have all but disappeared from the market, you can relax knowing your stash is secure, at least for a little while. Another popular option? Make ramp pesto: This garlicky sauce is made with blanched ramp leaves, plus the bulbs and stems, as well as plenty of olive oil and variations on the usual pesto suspects (walnuts in place of pine nuts, Pecorino in place of Parmesan).
The fun doesn’t end here though. Serve sautéed ramps with eggs and toast. Mix the plant into kimchi. Make ramp biscuits. Brush them with olive oil, grill until soft and charred, and serve as a side to grilled meats. The possibilities aren’t exactly endless, but there’s nothing stopping you from introducing ramps in this savory galette made with a combination of onions or using them in a riff on potato-leek soup. Or swap them into any recipe calling for green onions. Can’t wait to start your day with ramps? Sauté chopped ramps in butter or olive oil and fold them into an omelet, frittata, or quiche for brunch.
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