It's really kind of Mother Nature to have arranged things so that some of the first wild plants to emerge in spring are the edible, delicious ramps. Ramps begin to appear about the time our local (Minnesota, then Wisconsin) trout seasons open, and it's amazing to see the blank, barren forest floor erupt with the green, lush, and pungent leaves of ramps as April turns to May and spring really sets in.
Almost as amazing as their prolific emergence--I've stood in the middle of a patch of ramps in southeastern Minnesota and turned 360 to see ramps in every direction for fifty yards or more--is the disappearing act they perform when May turns to June and the warm weather arrives. The leaves begin to grow yellowed and spotty, to wither, shrink, and finally disappear altogether, and within a couple of weeks it's as if that sea of ramps never existed. They've started sending up thin flower stalks by this time, but those are quickly subsumed among the forest plants and wildflowers of summer.
The ramps are still there, of course, the underground bulbs that are the main edible portion of ramps. If you knew where to dig, you could find them all summer long, and into the fall. In mid-summer, though, they generously announce their presence once more, when those flower stalks open in white starbursts, little floral flags that say, "Here I am! Eat me!"
And so we did, in a pilaf flavored with seared ramps, garden carrots, and fistfuls of garden herbs, to complement fried, cornmeal-crusted brown and brook trout. Where springtime ramps are tender and edible from the top of the leaf to the bottom of the bulb, we only use the bulb portion of summer ramps. The flower stalks are tough, and there's nothing to them, anyway.
Some farmers market snow peas rounded out the plate. We sautéed sliced ramps and carrots in olive oil until they started to color, added the rice (2/3 cup is ample for two servings), twice that amount of water, covered, turned the heat down as far as it would go, steamed the pilaf for 17 minutes, turned off the heat. Then we tossed the peas in on top of the rice, and they steamed to tender-crisp in the residual heat while the trout finished cooking.
The trout were seasoned with salt and pepper, and coated with organic cornmeal. This simple coating creates a crisp crust and keeps the trout nicely moist. I sometimes use rye or even buckwheat flour to coat trout before frying--and then, often I don't put anything on them at all.
Those were very small trout, nine or ten inches at best, perfect frying size, perfectly delicious. They cooked for about three minutes per side in canola oil with a little butter added.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw