It’s ramp season in Appalachia! Each year, beginning in mid-March, Purple Onion customers start to ask, “When will the ramps be in?” And once they are here, they disappear almost as fast as our vendors bring in their handpicked treasures.
I know some of you will wrinkle your noses and repeat the often-heard comments about how ramps are stinky and strong, how people who eat them smell like ramps for days, and how they overpower everything with which they are cooked.
I would argue there is something to love about a hard-to-find allium that brings hundreds of people together annually at community suppers around the state and the region to sit at long tables and enjoy a family style meal of ham, potatoes, ramps, soup beans and cornbread. Over the years, creative cooks have added menu items like green salad with ramp dressing and ramp pizza.
At home, ramps are versatile and can take the place of onions and garlic in recipes. They aren’t on the market long, but if you pick up a bunch or two, you can have fun with ramps from breakfast to dinner.
Ramps, or allium tricoccum, have a couple of wide, spade-shaped leaves and grow 4- to 12-inches long with tender, pale green stems and white bulbs. They have a pungent and sweet flavor that’s a cross between garlic and spring onions. Related to leeks and shallots, ramps are among the first green leaves to signal spring in the mountains. They are primarily found in the Appalachian Mountains, but can be found as far north as Quebec and, in recent years, have been growing in upper Midwest and West Coast areas. That’s because ramps are picky. They prefer high altitudes and low light. As soon as the weather gets hot, the ramps are gone.
If you’re buying ramps, look for dark green leaves with no signs of wilting or discoloration. The stalk will be light green to white and should be about the size of a scallion, with a firm small bulb. Look for thin stalks because the thick ones can be too woody.
Now that you’re ready for a treat, let’s talk about how to eat ramps.
You can enjoy them raw, like a scallion, on a fresh veggie tray with a bright dip. If you’re not sure you’re ready for that, do like they do at the ramp festivals and serve them up in a fried potato dish. With eggs and toast, you’ll have a tasty breakfast.
For brunch or a weekend lunch, try a quiche with ramps, bacon and Gruyère. You can make your own deep-dish pie crust, but a frozen one works just as well. If you’d rather cut out the meat, substitute mushrooms for the bacon. Add a fresh spinach salad with ramp vinaigrette.
Many chefs will tell you ramps are great pickled and used on tacos or burgers. Ramps also make a great compound butter that’s good served with grilled fish, chicken or vegetables. Using ramps in these ways make it easy to preserve them for use after the short harvesting season ends.
Another option is to make a quick ramp chermoula that is a perfect accompaniment to grilled meats and fish or can be used, like pesto, as a sauce for pasta.
For dinner, try roasted chicken with ramps and potatoes. It’s easy to put together, and roasting the ramps brings out their sweeter side, just as with roasting garlic.
Don’t take too long to deciding whether to give ramps a try. They aren’t here long, and their fans snatch them up as soon as they see them.