If you’ve been to a farmer’s market lately-or taken a stroll by a hillside or stream-you may have noticed an edible plant with leaves that look like Lilly of the Valley and bulbs that smell like garlic on steroids. These are wild leeks, also known as ramps, and they are the pride of chefs and home cooks who know how to harness their powerful funk.
Ramps start to appear throughout most of the country (they don’t grow in arid climates) as soon as the frost and snow disappear at the start of spring. They have bright green leaves, pink stems, and white bulbs that look much like scallion bulbs. The leaves can be chopped and cooked briefly, while the white bulbs can be browned or sautéed like standard white or yellow onions.
Ramps have been eaten in rural areas, particularly the Appalachian Mountains, ever since people can remember. But for city folk, they’re a new discovery. It’s only in the last decade or so that I remember seeing them at the farmer’s market. Like lots of foods-stinging nettles, lamb’s quarters, and chickweed, to name a few-ramps were once a weed eaten only by knowledgeable country dwellers, but are now a gourmet item on the menu of high-end city restaurants.
So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, part of the thrill of ramps is that they’re the first green vegetable to make an appearance after months of nothing but root vegetables. But ramps really are a powerful ingredient. Because of their intense smell, ramps have a lot of flavor. They brighten up simple dishes like scrambled eggs, pasta, and mashed potatoes. They’re versatile, too, and can be used anywhere you would use garlic or onions. I would caution, however, that you shouldn’t eat them raw, unless you plan to avoid other humans for twenty-four hours, because your garlic breath will blow them away.
Here’s a simple recipe for minty ramp pesto that’s perfect to slather on fish, chicken, or vegetables before pan searing, grilling, or roasting. For the best flavor, marinate meat or vegetables in the pesto for at least an hour or as long as overnight to get the most flavor.
- 1 bunch ramps
- 1 bunch fresh mint, stemmed
- 1 handful walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds
- 1 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
Wash the ramps in several changes of water to remove grit. Peel off any brown membranes around the stems, and slice off the roots and discard. Dry the ramps thoroughly and coarsely chop.
Place the ramps, mint, and nuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. With the machine on, pour in the olive oil. The pesto should be thick and slightly chunky. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. The pesto is now ready to use on meat or vegetables.