Ramps, ramson or wild leeks are one of the first ingredients to pop up in spring. These lovely, pungent, oniony, garlicky wild edibles arrive around late April and begin to tail off in June.
I guess you could say that chefs cause a “ramp-age” during their very short season. The lure of a ramp is pretty understandable because they’re hard to find and in limited supply due to sustainability concerns. To find them is to be extremely lucky. You must also have some foraging know-how to be sure you’re not picking any of their dangerous lookalikes, such as lily of the valley or hellebore. So, let’s dig into what makes a ramp, a ramp.
What are ramps? Are they really wild leeks?
Ehh…technically they’re not a leek at all, but the name ‘wild leek’ sure does sound a lot better than ‘ramp’. Ramps are, however, a member of the Allium (onion) family, so they’re really more like a long-lost woodland cousin of leeks. Ramps look like a cross between a scallion and a leek. They have two or three forest-green leaves and slender stems with a bright white bulb. Ramp stems come in beautiful shades of red to bright white. The bulbs range in thickness from pencil thin to thumb thick. Ramps pack a punch of what I like to call ‘ramp punch’. They inherit the onion’s classic sharpness, but carry the funk of garlic.
Ramps are one of the most controversial ingredients to pick in spring. Why? Ramps take a long time to grow (about five to seven years from seed), and two to three years once transplanted. However, they will return annually once the root bulb has been established.
Because of their slow growth rate, sustainable foraging is a must. If you are going “ramping”, take your time and please do so sustainably. This means a few things. For novices that go ramp foraging, pick only one to two leaves, making sure to leave at least one leaf per plant to allow photosynthesis to continue.
If you’re a full-fledged ramp lover that has been ramping for a few years, you can sustainably harvest ramps by removing the entire ramp except for its roots. I do this by cutting a centimeter above the root end with a sharp pocketknife. This allows you to enjoy part of the bulb while allowing the ramp to regenerate and regrow.
For full-time foragers (like James O’Neill from Deep Forest Wild Edibles) that want to sustainably harvest ramps, harvesting and transplanting the roots is the way to go. Now, this is where the controversy begins. Ramps that are sold willy nilly with the roots intact but not transplanted are not only unsustainable, but really counterproductive to running a foraging business. To be sustainable, reputable foragers like Deep Forest Wild Edibles pull only 25% of any ramp crop they find. From the 25% they harvest, they only sell about one-fourth of that. They transplant the rest in forests amongst beech, popular, birch and sugar maple trees.
The most important thing to remember when ramp foraging is to never over harvest them. Ramps will eventually go extinct if we are not stewards of sustainability.
What to look for when buying ramps
The first and most important tip is to buy ramps from a reputable forager or local farmer that uses sustainable harvesting methods. Don’t be afraid to ask about their operating procedures. Once you get that out of the way, the ramps should look perky! They should look like they were plucked from the ground moments ago. The leaves should be bright forest green. Don’t be alarmed if the leaves have bug bites; After all, they are a wild green, so it’s only natural that they aren’t perfect. Stems should be smooth and not shriveled. This proves that they’re fresh. The bulbs should also be firm and fresh.
If you can resist eating them all in one sitting, you will need a place to store them. Roll the ramps in a damp paper towel, then place them into an unsealed plastic bag, being careful not to bruise the greens. Then, pop them in the refrigerator. Don’t be surprised if your refrigerator smells of garlic. It’s part of the ramp experience!
Alternatively, you can store the ramps for up to one year by preserving them. If you’re witty about it, they can even last until the next ramp season. Ramps are fond of pickling. They also make a great kimchi, or you can use the greens to make oil for salad dressings. There are as many ways to preserve ramps as there are ramps in the wild, so have fun with it!
If you would like to enjoy ramps before their season ends. Farm2ChefsTable Potato Ramp Soup is a great recipe that showcases ramps at their finest.