Following the maple run, ramps – also known as wild leeks – are one of the first harvests available from the our north country earth. Using a serving spoon or just your fingers, you can easily and gently loosen the bulb and roots from a ramp cluster in rich (and usually moist) forest soil.
You’ll find bright-green aromatic leaves around 4 to 6 inches high that look like those from a lily of the valley, as it’s of the lily family. Be careful not to remove an entire cluster, as you want the ramps to rejuvenate the following year.
After trimming the roots and removing any paper-like skin, thoroughly rinse the ramp bulb, stem and leaves (discarding any leaves that have yellowed), as all parts of the ramp can be consumed. You can treat it as you would a cultivated leek, but should consider cooking a shorter period of time – sautéed and included in a quiche, omelet, or served with butter or hollandaise sauce, or braised with chicken or fish for a flavorful entree. Leaves can be chopped or cut in a chiffonade fashion for garnish or included in a soup or sauce.
While the weather will play a role in how early in the season you’ll be able to harvest them, there have been years where I’ve harvested in March and other seasons when I’ve still been able to find them in good form during July. The tiny bulbs usually weigh out at 40-50 per pound. If storing, wrap a wet/damp paper towel around the bulbs and roots and place in a plastic zip-lock baggie – they’ll keep this way for at least a week. While freezing isn’t a great option, you can certainly preserve the ramps in the manner of a confit (cooked and stored in the refrigerator in a jar) or pickle them (great in a martini). However, they’re wonderful fresh – and if you have a bounty or near endless supply, share the harvest.
To serve up a riff on the classic vichyssoise, try this recipe substituting ramps for conventional leeks.
Yield: 6 servings
2-3 tablespoons butter
3-4 cups thinly sliced ramps, (you can include both bulbs and leaves)
3 cups diced potatoes (if it’s a new potato, or a variety with a thin skin, leave the skin on, otherwise peel before dicing)
5 cups chicken stock
Kosher salt, to taste
1 cup whole milk
Melt butter in a large saucepan or cast iron casserole over medium heat. Add ramps, sprinkle with salt and cook for a few minutes, stirring often. Add potatoes and stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, lower heat, and simmer twenty minutes to a half an hour, or until potato pieces are tender. Allow to cool slightly and puree, either using an immersion blender or food processor, mindful of the hot liquid. Whisk in one-half cup of milk or cream and simmer for a few minutes. If you want to serve it in the manner of a vichyssoise, chill thoroughly (two hours to overnight) and stir in remaining milk or cream just before serving. Garnish with very finely chopped or a chiffonade (ribbons) of ramp leaves. To serve hot stir in the remaining cream after the final simmer.
Annette Nielsen is a food writer, editor, community organizer and activist on behalf of regional agriculture. She recently edited Northern Comfort and Northern Bounty, two seasonally-based cookbooks for Adirondack Life Magazine. You can follow her on twitter @The_Kitchen_Cab. A native of Northville, she lives in Salem, New York with her husband and son.