Ramp season is here! Ramps are one of the first wild greens to emerge. This springtime native is famous for its restorative qualities after a long winter. And where there are ramps, there’s a Wild Ramps Pesto recipe to be made!
What are Ramps?
What are ramps? As in the inclined walkway? No, no.
Ramps are a green plant in the onion family; they’ve also been called wild leeks, wild garlic, wood leeks, and ramsons. Scientifically, they’re known as Allium tricoccum. With a small, white bulb and hairy root, they resemble scallions and are foraged from shady, woody areas just a few weeks from late April to early June. They are one of the earliest wild edibles to emerge and were traditionally a spring tonic. Early settlers relied on their restorative qualities after long, hungry winters.
Ramps appear for a fleeting moment at farmers’ markets, adventurous grocery stores, and high-end markets in early spring. And these stores charge quite a lot to truck limp wild ramps to their aisles! It’s rather ironic considering the people of the Appalachian mountains and Native Americans have harvested wild ramps for free for generations.
Where Do Ramps Grow?
Ramps grow in shady, woody, moist areas. They’re native to mountainous forests in the eastern North America—as far north as Canada and as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Missouri.
Around mid-April to early May, take a walk through any shady hardwood forest. This is when ramps have their brief season of glory as they’ll die off once the tree canopies leaf out. Look in the shady patches in low-lying areas (not swamps). They’re not that hard to find nor I.D. if you know where to go.
A ramp has 2 to 3 beautifully green, smooth, broad leaves per stem. (See below.) They do have a poisonous look-a-like: Lily of the Valley. However, ramp leaves are thin and papery while Lily of the Valley leaves are thicker and more rubbery. The real and obvious difference, however, is the smell. Ramps have a strong oniony smell. If you break off a leaf, you can not mistake that pungent onion and garlic scent.
If you are harvesting your own ramps, do so sustainably: Ramps should be cut leaving the bulb in the ground to regrow.This is how the Native Americans harvested (and still do).
To harvest ramps, just loosen the soil with a trowel and pull back the dirt from the bulb.
Cut off the bottom of the bulb with a sharp pocket knife while it’s still in the ground.
If you only want the leaves, then cut only one leaf from each ramp and leave the bulb with a second leaf to keep growing.
Then re-cover the roots with dirt and leave them to grow next year.
Please do NOT just tear the roots out of the ground. In many areas, ramps are being threatened and over-foraged for restaurants,
What Do Ramps Taste Like?
The flavor of ramps is unique and hard to describe; the closest we can come is a pungent mix of onion and garlic.
Use ramps in recipes as you would onions or garlic: in eggs, potatoes, vegetable stir-fries, etc. Just keep in mind that ramps are more potent!
Ramps are amazing in pasta! To make an easy spaghetti dish, just cook up the ramp bulbs (thinly sliced) in a skillet with a few teaspoons of butter and olive oil. Tear up a couple cups of ramp greens and add to the skillet. Then gently mix ramps into cooked pasta! Mix in grated Parmesan and serve.
Wild Ramp Pesto Recipe
Back when I worked at a farm on the East Coast, we would have samples of ramp pesto for customers to try. It’s incredible. As the person in charge of making said samples, I decided that I was therefore allowed to eat copious amounts of it when customers were not around! It’s divine on a sandwich, on crostini, on a potato salad, or simply on a spoon.
Pesto is also the best way to preserve the ramp leaves. The pesto can be stored in the refrigerator in the short term or frozen for use later.
1 bunch (about 6 ounces) ramps
1/2 cup walnuts (toasted in a skillet for 5 minutes until golden)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (or 1/2 cup—you kind of have to eyeball it)
Squirt of lemon juice
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley (optional)
1. Wash ramps throughly and cut off the leaves of the ramps.
2. Chop the ramp leaves and walnuts just a bit and put them in your food processor. (Optional: add parsley.)
3. Add most of the cheese (save a sprinkle for serving) plus salt.
4. Pouring the olive oil in slowly, process contents until they combine and look, well … pesto-y.
5. Taste for seasoning and add a good squirt of lemon juice.