Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Got Ramps?!



Worthy of its own festival, ramps are a springtime rite celebrating a Southern Appalachian delicacy. Smelly as a ram in spring, ramps get their nickname from the Old English word “ramson” for wild garlic. They are also affectionately known as the spring onion, wild leek, and in French, ail sauvage and ail des bois, which translates as (no surprise!) wild garlic. This might lead one to think that there are ramps in France, but the French name comes from the Canadian province of Quebec where this wild food also emerges in the springtime. Once considered a lowly member of the leek family, Allium tricoccum, is a perennial member of the onion family, Alliaceae, which has a newfound status as a gourmet wild food. Ramps are popular in the cuisines of the rural upland South and in Quebec appearing in upscale restaurants throughout North America. It is a native of rich, damp woodlands in the eastern US and is becoming vulnerable to over harvesting. Ramps are gaining so fast in popularity, in fact, that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned their collection. A permit can still be obtained to dig ramps in the Nantahala and Pisgah National forests of North Carolina.

Slow growing ramps grow in clusters strongly rooted just beneath the organic layer of soil over a limestone outcropping on a north-facing slope that is timbered in hard woods on a well-shaded floodplain or above a streambed. They must be carefully dug in order not to tear the leaves or break their delicate bulb. Unmistakable with their garlicky odor and onion like flavor, ramps are only available for a few weeks in the spring. Mature ramps have two or three broad, smooth, shiny green leaves arising from a purplish lower stem that connects underground to a scallion-like, white, elongated bulb. Ramps can be commercially cultivated, but propagation from seed is difficult. It is possible to transplant them into loose, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter, and plenty of shade and moisture. Other plants you may observe scattered among the ramps are the Trout Lily, Bloodroot and Trillium. There are a couple of look-alikes that one should be aware of and they are Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) and Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) which like the ramp are small and two-leafed. Lily of the Valley is considered to be highly poisonous, and the Trout Lily will induce vomiting. Neither of these has the distinct odor or bulb of the ramp. The young Trout Lily sends up only one leaf, which is much smaller than ramps, and the older leaves are mottled. The young Trout Lily is the one most commonly mistaken for a ramp as it also has a purplish stem. It’s single leaf and lack of ramp odor is its give-away.

So let us welcome the ‘Comin’ O’ Spring’ with a pungent treat and deep appreciation for these bright green ‘wild leeks’, as they are called in the north. An important spring tonic after a long cold winter, both leaves and bulbs are edible and medicinal. They are easily prepared and can be substituted in any recipe that calls for leeks, onions, scallions or garlic. Their pungent flavor helps to disperse mucus, stimulate digestion, and improve sluggish liver function. Its mildly diaphoretic action offers protection against colds. Best combined with grains, which are moderately mucus forming, they disperse stagnant blood and increase qi energy. Eating ramps in combination with grains (full sweet) is a wonderful way to attune to spring.

Folks have long been celebrating the ramp with annual festivals like the one in Cosby, Tennessee that has been going on for over 50 years. One of the highlights of this festival is the crowning of the “Maid of Ramps” in a celebration of music, dance and ritual. But the festival need not be any further than your own kitchen to celebrate the gourmet side of this native plant. And here’s a little secret for you: If you happen to be out in the woods hunting for ramps – keep your eyes open for morels, they like a similar habitat and are ready to harvest at the same time. Fresh morel mushrooms cooked up with a ‘mess o’ ramps’ is heaven on earth!

Wild Ramp and Mushroom Sauté
3 tablespoons bacon grease from organic, nitrate and nitrite free bacon
2 cups chopped ramps, leaves and bulb
1 cup chopped fresh morels
dash white wine or herbal vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté mushrooms in bacon grease until tender. Turn up the heat and using a quick high-temperature sauté method, add ramps and cook until tender, stirring frequently. Add vinegar, then remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of fish, meat or favorite grain.