Those of us who have been tuned in to the world of local and seasonal eating for a while probably have a complex, somewhat complicated relationship with ramps. Those “wild leeks” of springtime that have perfumed loamy woodlands and Appalachian kitchens for generations in relative obscurity leapt into the culinary limelight 20 or so years ago, and have been hogging center stage ever since. I recall seeing them mentioned more and more often in reviews of New York restaurants in the late 1990s, then noticing them for sale (at what seemed like an exorbitant price) in Twin Cities food co-ops, and then came the big Ah-ha! moment when, walking the banks of a favorite trout stream, I was brought up short by a powerful garlic-chivey smell and looked around to find that I was standing in a veritable field of ramps, their crushed leaves under my wading boots sending up what was, to me, an incredibly appetizing aroma.
Thus began my journey along what one might call the stages of grief/stations of the cross for ramp lovers in the foodie 21st century. Fascination and infatuation at first meeting, then falling big time for this humble but compelling new crush; then the skepticism, eye-rolling at the sudden bandwagoning crowds, the farmers market shoppers clamoring, the fancy chefs pandering; disillusionment—was I a fool to fall so fast, so hard, for a love that had turned fickle and trendy?; then acceptance: hey, it’s a stinking wild onion, it’s delicious, and when you pick it yourself, it’s free, and ridiculously abundant when you know where to look—get over it.
I’ve reached acceptance now, indeed, a state of near ramps nirvana, if you don’t mind my mixing gastro-religious metaphors in reference to a common woodland weed. I went fishing with my friend Tom during Minnesota’s opening weekend for the regular (i.e., kill ‘em & grill ‘em, hook ‘em & cook ‘em) trout season a week ago Sunday, and while the fishing was pretty good, the foraging was even better. The warm start to spring meant that the ramps were already well up and sizable. We each took home a sack, and I’ve been cooking with them nearly every day since.
|Opening weekend trout stream rice bowl with ramps, cress, and of course, trout, brown.|
While I’ve come up with a number of ramp-specific recipes over the years, now I tend to treat them like any other allium (that is, onion or lily family member, ramps being allium tricoccum), as a versatile aromatic. So I’ve sautéed them to build a nice base for ramen stock, thrown a handful into a quesadilla, strewn slivers atop a pizza, sweated with other aromatics to flavor a pilaf—you get the idea.
Yesterday I did a little pickling, putting up one pint of ramp bulbs per this versatile method, setting a quart to ferment in a simple salt-water brine. Looking through my blog index I find that I might have more recipes involving ramps than just about any other ingredient. As far as that gnarly, evolving relationship with ramps goes, I guess I’m fully committed.
Charred Ramp and Watercress Soup
I used Madeleine Kamman’s cabbage cream soup as a template. Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter
2 ounces salt pork or pancetta, in 1/3” dice (or 2 tablespoons cooking oil)
10 good ramps, well cleaned
1 small potato, about 4 ounces, peeled, cut in small dice, and rinsed, and well drained
4 cups loosely packed watercress (about 4 ounces), leaves and stems, well rinsed (especially if it’s wild cress) and roughly chopped
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Optional garnish: croutons, good yogurt, cream, or thinned sour cream
Separate the ramp greens from the stem-bulb sections and set aside. Slice the stem-bulb sections crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces.
If using salt pork/pancetta, render the pork cubes gently over medium-low heat until they have given up much of their fat and started to brown. Remove the cubes from the pan and set aside. Pour off—but save!—the fat, and return 2 tablespoons to the pan.
If you don’t have salt pork or pancetta, heat 2 tablespoons oil.
Turn the heat to medium-high and add the chopped ramps, then the potato. Cook, stirring frequently, until the potato begins to brown and the ramp pieces take on color—indeed, we are looking for some of the ramp bits to become quite dark, even black. Just don’t burn the crap out of it so it all turns ashy and bitter.
|Getting good color.|
When the potato is golden, the ramps nicely colored/charred, add the chicken stock, then the cress, a couple good pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook at a gentle bubble for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Chiffonade (cut in thin ribbons) the ramp greens, and add half of them to the soup at the end of the 10-minute simmer. Let the soup cool for a few minutes, then purée, using either an immersion blender, a regular blender, or, with great care and caution, a food processor.
The soup can be made to this point up to several days ahead. Just before serving, reheat the soup and serve garnished with the recrisped salt pork/pancetta cubes, croutons from good, honest bread, perhaps a swirl of yogurt (I’m fond of goat yogurt), and the remaining ramp leaf chiffonade, or as you please.
Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw