It’s always a lovely thing to make that first foray to southeastern Minnesota trout waters in mid-April, for many reasons. The drive south is exhilarating, as I cross tiny Hay Creek at the corner of our property and then trace the southward route of its flow that begins in springs just up the valley from us. It finds its way to the Red Cedar River, and that pours into the broad, meandering Chippewa, a mighty waterway of this region. The Chipp is wide, and in springtime often muddy and roiling, when it reaches the Mississippi; impressive as the Chippewa can be, it is shown its place by the Father of Waters, moving majestically, escorted by swams, gulls, and eagles, through the grand castellations of limestone bluffs.
Once across the Mighty One and into Minnesota, I now proceed against the flow, up the Whitewater and tributaries thereof, to fish more intimate water. This modest journey is a compelling reminder of how hydrology and geology shape our lives in these parts, and the circular nature of a raindrop’s path from northern Dunn County to the sea, perhaps one day to be deposited back where it started, is appropriate to the beginning of another cycle of seasons—the beginning as we think of it here, as winter’s cold static grip is broken, and things again begin to flow, and grow.
And then, of course, it is delightful to get the wading boots wet again, string up the rod, tie on a fly, try to catch a fish. Early season fishing is usually good, except when it’s not. Or better to say: the fishing is always good, but the catching may vary.
Something more certain than whether there will be fish in the creel on the homeward trip is the likelihood of taking home tasty greens. Watercress springs are a pretty sure bet, and even when winter has been annoyingly persistent I’ve always managed to bring home at least a few decent sized ramps on that first outing, usually a few days past tax time. It will be another couple of weeks, at least, before they’ve reached picking size in my local woods; that hour-plus drive south is a fast-forward through the season, as well.
I first became aware of ramps along a Wisconsin river maybe 20 years ago, and I’ve harvested them every year since. Some years I’ve become tired of eating them before their season is out; some years I’ve grown jaded by the hype that has come to surround them in foodie circles. This year, perhaps more than any other, I’ve simply embraced ramps for the seasonal delight that they are, and I’ve been eating them pretty much every day. I haven’t really come up with any stunning new preparations of what is, really, just a wild onion, but I’ve explored its versatility by treating it as a commonplace, rather than an exotic, ingredient.
|Rice bowl with brook trout, ramps, asparagus, pheasant back mushroom.|
I’ve put ramps on pizza, into salad dressings, chopped into a soy-based sauce that anointed a rice bowl meal, and stir-fried for the same. I made my chile-cheddar spread with ramps instead of onion, and slapped my head when it occurred to me I could have done that with the recipe in my book. The ramp-infused version of that pimiento cheese variation is outstanding. I’ve added them to a potato soufflé also laced with chopped wood nettles, and used them to flavor a birch syrup cure for duck breast that I smoked using wild black cherry wood.
|Cherry wood smoked duck magret, cured in birch syrup & ramps; bracken fiddleheads.|
I made a bearnasie sauce where ramps stood in for the usual shallots, and ramp-roasted brown trout served with schupfnudeln fried with ramps and bacon, and the ramped up remoulade I wrote about recently. Whole lotta rampin’ goin’ on….
|Grilled herring with "rampearnaise;" the sauce was second-day salvage & broke a bit. Still delicious.|
And still, I just want to keep eating ramps. Maybe with age my taste buds are dulling. I would prefer to think that the great variety of ways I’ve used them is keeping the flavor fresh and intriguing. I’ve got a bunch in the fridge still, getting a little wilted in the greens, so I think I will pickle the bulbs of those ones. With the weather having cooled off a bit, their season in our parts should last until the end of May, at least. We’ll see if my rampish appetite can keep up.