Spring has sprung,
Winter has went,
It was not did by accident.
My grandmother always said that about this time of year. And with spring comes a bunch of nourishing wild food. Ramps, ramsons or wild leeks, are one of the earliest to emerge, and, for some, they're the holy grail of wild edibles. Early settlers relied on their restorative qualities after long, hungry winters. The high vitamin C in ramps has saved many a mountaineer from scurvy and other nutritional maladies. Modern foragers dream all year about that uniquely pungent garlicky-onion flavor... the same flavor that odiferously and offensively permeates your pores to effectively stave off man and beast.
Unfortunately for ramps, they're super-trendy these days. Chefs and foodies flock to the mountains for a chance to bask in their gourmet-ness. "Ramp feeds," known as ramp festivals now, have been taking a toll on ramp populations for years and the added pressure of their recent popularity has really put a hurting on their numbers. The implications affect conservationists and foodies alike. Cindy and I are conservationists first and foragers second. What this means for us is that ramping is not only unsustainable, but it gets more arduous each year as we climb higher and longer to find undiscovered ramp patches. I recently learned that when the Cherokee dig ramps, they always leave the roots by cutting off the bottom of the bulb with a pocket knife while it's still in the ground. I've started doing it, too, but I'm afraid the ever-inceasing demand will eclipse the slow procreation.
So we've been looking into the possibility of cultivating our own ramps. I've always heard they'll survive almost anywhere in our Southern Appalachian region but will only propagate above 3000 feet. We've successfully transplanted ramps that come back each year but our little patch hasn't spread (it's below 3000 ft.). According to North Carolina Extension Horticultural Specialist Jeanine M. Davis, ramps can be transplanted and cultivated from seed at much lower elevations. Apparently, it takes some effort to germinate seeds when climes are warmer than ideal, but it can be done. And once a good patch is established, it supposedly requires little maintenance. Jeanine recommends the book Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too by the "Johnny Appleseed of Ramps" for more info on cultivating ramps.
Storing & Preserving Ramps
Ramps are only in season for a couple months or so, but, for us, getting them is only half the problem. I usually come back from a good ramping trip with several pounds: a little more than we can eat before they go bad (I rarely go digging more than once a season unless I come home with a particularly light harvest). The bulbs are easy enough to freeze. To freeze them, we clean them up, pat them dry and put in a Mason jar. They do tend to stick together later, so sometimes we lay them on a sheet pan and freeze before putting them in jars. Frozen ramps will keep for six months or so.
The greens, my favorite part, don't last more than a few days and they don't freeze well. The best way we've found to save them is by making ramp compound butter which will last six months in the fridge and a year in the freezer. It's really good and really easy (see recipe below)
Cooking & Eating Ramps
Some folks like to eat ramps raw. I like a little chopped up in a salad, but cooked ramps are a lot more fun. My favorite way to eat them is mixed into venison burgers or in ramp and white cheddar soup. And it's hard to beat ramps and eggs for breakfast.
A few years back, Cindy came across this sweet little book from West Virginia called Mom & Ramps Forever! by Barbara Beury McCallum. There's some fun anecdotal history on ramps in there. It's also a collection of old timey recipes and stand-bys like pickled ramps and ramp champ - mashed potatoes with ramps. Here's one of the recipes... quick and easy and sounds tasty:
Ramps With Watercress
"Fry some bacon until crisp, remove the bacon then drain off part of the bacon drippings. Put washed cress into the pan with the water that clings to it. Cook covered, until tender. Garnish with crumpled bacon, finely chopped ramps, and some chopped hard cooked eggs."
Unfortunately, Mom & Ramps Forever! is out of print, but it's a nice one for the collection if you can find it.
Ramp Compound Butter
- 1 lb. softened butter
- 1 to 2 cups ramp greens, chopped
- 2 Tbls freshly squeezed lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth and pack in small containers. Use just as you would garlic butter.