It’s mid-April and for Farmers’ Market Finds that means two things: ramps and fava beans. I will talk about fava beans another time, when I have recovered from the repetitive stress injury I got while shelling them. Today I want to talk about ramps. Ramps are one of those foods that has gone from obscure to so-trendy-as-to-verge-on-becoming-overexposed in the past two or three years. I remember reading about a West Virginia town’s ramps festival in the Washington Post Food section a dozen years ago. Back then, ramps were a plant that only grew wild and those in-the-know had to forage for them. By 2008, they were one of the year’s Top Ten food trends. Now you can find them at Whole Foods, two (teeny) bunches for $5.
Ramps herald the arrival of spring and thus cause an amount of excitement that some find to be disproportionate to their merits. I will admit to being one of the people who gets excited about ramps. For the uninitiated, ramps are a variety of wild leek with a mild garlic flavor. They have a small bulb at the bottom and a leafy green top. They are apparently hard to cultivate and tend to be available only for a few weeks in the spring. Someone must have figured out how to grow them, however, if Whole Foods is selling them. While I’ve been reading about ramps for years, I have only been able to buy them recently because most Illinois farmers’ markets do not start until late May, and ramps were traditionally an East Coast phenomenon anyway. So when I saw them for sale at Whole Foods after all these years, there was no question I was going to buy some.
I had a lot of fun with my ramps this week. I pickled the bulbs in a sweet and spicy brine and made a delicious garlicky-tasting pesto with the leaves. Other times, I have sautéed the greens and folded some of them into scrambled eggs and used the rest to top a pizza. You can really use the sauteed greens anyplace where you enjoy the flavor of onions, like on top of a hamburger.
Pickled ramps are quite a phenomenon and you can find lots of different recipes for them. Here is one that my friend Marisa (of the canning blog Food in Jars) posted on Serious Eats. I improvised my particular pickled ramps recipe, but since this is a quick pickle that is refrigerated, not one that I process for shelf-stability, it is okay to improvise a bit. I will have to wait a few more weeks to see how they turned out. One trick I have learned about pickled ramps: slice them thinly before eating . Last year, when I made pickled ramps, I tried to eat them whole and I found them stringy and tough and just not very good. But then, at a restaurant, I had a dish that was garnished with sliced pickled ramps and I loved it. So that’s how I plan to use my pickled ramps in a few weeks when they have had time to cure.
One thing we know for sure about ramps: they will be gone in a week or two, if they are not already. But it was fun to play with them while they lasted.
2 small bunches ramps, green tops removed and roughly chopped (approximately 3 cups)
1/4 cups pine nuts, toasted*
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine pine nuts and ramps in a food processor and process into a coarse paste. With the food processor on, add the olive oil slowly in a steady stream. Process until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. This pesto can be frozen. Feel free to add grated Parmesan before serving. Use as a sauce for pasta or any other place where you use pesto.
*It really makes a difference in the flavor of the pesto if you toast the pine nuts.
Quick Pickled Ramps
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. pickling salt
2 bunches of ramps, bulb ends only, trimmed and cleaned
1 bay leaf
Pinch red pepper flakes
Pinch brown mustard seeds
3-4 whole cloves
Bring water, vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Place the ramps in a sterilized, clean (preferably warm) 8 oz. glass jar. Add the bay leaf and other spices. Pour brine over the ramps in the jar, leaving 1/2 of room (known as headspace) at the top. Wipe off the rim of the jar and cover with a plastic top or ring and lid. Store in the refrigerator for a week or two before eating.