Even as April snow was falling, tender ramps were poking their way out from the forest floor, and thus we can feel reassured that despite those flurries the Earth knows things are warming up.
To celebrate their short season and the coming of spring, I try to find as many ways to use ramps as I can. The taste is neither leek, nor garlic, nor onion, but somehow offers essences of all three.
Ramps, also known in some places as wild leeks or spring onions, are not cultivated, and many people have their secret spots in the woods — as do I! For a long time, the only way to get ramps was to forage for them yourself. However, in recent years, due to their popularity and their rarity, some farmers markets or specialty stores sell sustainably foraged ramps in season.
If you want to try foraging for ramps, take care that you are not harvesting one of the inedible look-alike plants, such as lily-of-the-valley. There are good primers on the differences online. In addition, to forage responsibly, try not to uproot the plants so more ramps will sprout in future years. I usually take a small pocket knife and cut through the stem at an angle below the surface of the ground. Some do harvest from the roots, but I prefer to leave something for another year.
You can use ramps in most recipes that call for scallions. I made a great batch of scallion pancakes with ramps last year, and when I read about a charred scallion crema to serve with fajitas, I tried it with with grilled ramps. The stems are good pickled, and then the brine can also be used to add flavor to salad dressings.
It is often useful to treat the stems and bulbs differently from the leaves, as I do in the recipes below. The risotto can easily be vegetarian, or even vegan by using all olive oil and omitting the Parmesan. I like to serve the hollandaise with grilled steak, but for a vegetarian meal it pairs well with steamed new or Yukon Gold potatoes and a green vegetable such as asparagus or green beans.
When ramps are not in season, you can experiment with scallions or leeks. But it won’t be quite the same, so enjoy a hike in the woods as the weather warms and try to find some ramps while they’re here!
SPRING RISOTTO WITH RAMPS, PEAS AND ASPARAGUS
Serves 4 to 6, leftovers reheat well in the microwave
2 to 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock, preferably low sodium if store-bought, or homemade
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (omit for vegan and increase olive oil)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
8 to 10 ramps, bulbs and stems chopped, leaves chiffonade, and kept separate
Pinch kosher salt
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
14 to 16 asparagus, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (omit for vegan)
Place the broth in a medium saucepan, add enough water to make 5 cups liquid total, and bring to a boil on the burner behind where you will make the risotto. Lower the heat to keep warm.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or medium Dutch oven, heat the butter and oil over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the chopped ramp bulbs and stems with a pinch of salt, and sauté until soft and translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir for about a minute until coated with the butter and oil. Add the wine and stir until almost completely absorbed.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and begin adding broth from the saucepan to the rice, 1 to 2 ladlesful at a time up to about the height of the rice, stirring continually to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom. Allow the broth to absorb at least halfway before adding the next 1 to 2 ladlesful of broth. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the mixture hot, but not boiling. If you seem to be running low on broth, add water.
When the timer buzzes, set it for 8 more minutes, then add the asparagus and the peas, and continue adding broth and stirring in the same way. When the timer buzzes again, taste a piece or two of rice. (You may not have used all the broth.) It should be tender but still firm in the middle, al dente, similar to the desired doneness for pasta. If it is still too hard, continue cooking in the same way for a couple more minutes. Stir in the ramp leaves until they look wilted. Add the lemon zest and juice, and Parmesan cheese, and stir until melted into the risotto. Serve immediately.
For any leftover risotto, I find it helpful to stir another ladleful of cooled broth, if there is any left, into the remaining risotto before putting into the refrigerator.
GRILLED RAMP HOLLANDAISE
Serves 2, can be doubled
1 teaspoon olive oil
Pinch salt, plus more to taste if needed
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
2 egg yolks
4 ounces butter, softened, in chunks
Arrange the ramps on a plate, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
Preheat grill to medium. Turn the grill down to low and place the ramps gently on the grill, with the leaves at the cooler part of the grill. Grill for 1 to 3 minutes, checking frequently, especially the greens. Remove from the grill.
Finely mince the bulbs and thicker parts of the ramp stems. Chop the leaves and set aside.
Place the minced bulbs and stems into a small saucepan with the lemon juice and water. Cook over medium heat until the pieces of the ramps are fully softened, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Take the pan off the heat, add the egg yolks, and whisk vigorously to prevent them from becoming scrambled.
Return the pan to the heat and add the butter, one chunk at a time, whisking constantly to incorporate until you have used all the butter.
If you are not ready to serve, keep the sauce off the heat in a warm spot. If you have let the hollandaise sit for a few minutes, place it over a low heat and whisk again to smooth the sauce. Right before serving, mix in the chopped ramp leaves.