What the hell are ramps anyway? For most of my life I’d never heard of the things and then about five or six years ago, they started popping up everywhere. The way folks go on and on about them you’d think they’d cure cancer, world peace and the international debt crisis. How can something possibly live up to that hype? Then I tasted some. Huh. Oniony, garlicy with an ever so slight funky edge that is so much more interesting than a scallion or straight up onion. Worth it? I think so. They’re also a sure sign that spring has arrived, even more so than the season’s first asparagus or rhubarb. I think that’s what we’re all really looking for after a few dreary months so maybe a little crazy behavior is expected.
Ramps are a member of the allium family, a wild leek in fact, and it turns out they have strong ties to Chicago. Researchers determined that the plant called “Chicagou” in the language of native Illinois tribes was indeed the ramp. No wonder we’ve taken to them so strongly. They’re not limited just to the Midwest and grow wild all over North America from the southern states all the way up to Quebec and depending on location, the season can last all the way into the early summer months. The bulb portion looks much like a scallion and the leaves are long, smooth and sort of feathery. Many have reddish stems that taper to bright white bulbs. But it’s the scent that gives them away – these things are pungent.
Every spring, my good friend Gale and her son forage the woods around their home for wild ramps and sell them to our chef friends. This year I decided to get in on the action and soon a neatly packed 3 pound bag was waiting for me at a pal’s restaurant. It’s good to have friends like this.
They sat in my refrigerator for a few days, stinking up the joint, because frankly I wasn’t too sure what to do with them. So I asked those in the know, a perk of knowing chefs. Pickling was the overwhelming response so that’s the direction I took. I had visions of an early summer martini spiked with a beautiful pickled ramp rather than the commonplace olive. Oh how delightful, I imagined.
Coincidentally, I had just received a copy of Chef Paul Virant’s new book The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux. Sure enough, while flipping through, the book magically opened to the page on Pickled Ramps. It was a sign from above.
I dumped my bag into a sink full of water and started washing. Being a foraged foodstuff, these things were dirty and in need of a good scrubbing. I trimmed off the root ends as well as a layer or two around the bulb, much like a scallion. Piled up in a large bowl, they were stunning with their strong garlic scent permeating my kitchen. Then I took a look at the recipe, “2.5 pounds ramps, cleaned and trimmed.” What exactly did that mean? Keep the greens? Or trim them back? I couldn’t tell from the picture if the greens were stuffed into the canning jars but they just seemed so abundant I wasn’t sure. Out came the phone and a quick text to a chef friend.
Hey Pal – pickling ramps. Greens or no greens?
All of them?
How easy was that? It’s good to have such a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips. The only thing is that while I was waiting for a response, I googled “What to do with ramp greens” and discovered a recipe for Ramp Green Kimchi. By the time my friend responded only moments later I’d already decided to trim of most of the greens – I left a bit – to try my hand at kimchi. More on that later.
The process was easy – a quick blanch of the ramps then into the hot jars with a garlic clove and some crushed chile flakes. A sweet/sour vinegar solution was poured over, then the jars were capped and processed in boiling water for 10 minutes. Easy. The bulk of the work came in prepping the ramps. Now I realize that not everyone has access to ramps. I get it – if I didn’t know Gale, I’m not sure where I’d find them but I did see them once at Whole Foods last spring. It wouldn’t hurt to call the produce guy and ask. If you can’t get ramps, don’t rule this recipe out. The brine would be great with any vegetable; pearl onions would be really nice as would carrots or cauliflower.
While waiting for the jars to process, I flipped through the book. It’s a good one full of interesting recipes for pickled and preserved things in the first half and recipes to use these items in the second half. This solves a problem I frequently have – my canning benders often produce far more than I can possibly consume. Ideas for my pickled ramps include Rainbow Trout with Creamed Ramps and Morels (it uses some of the pickle brine too) and a great recipe for that martini. There’s a recipe for Ramp Sauerkraut too that I might have to try next year. Beer Jam might be up next, made with a deep, rich creamy stout. It would be outstanding on a cheese or charcuterie plate and I’ll certainly have a Beer Jam Manhattan or six. Oh hells yes.
Among many other things, the list of Aigre-Doux, a sweet-sour condiment, turned my head. How about a blueberry version with a nice ripe Camembert or pear-vanilla with blue cheese? Caramel-cipollini aigre-doux with roast pork? Or Milk Jam, the French version of dulce de leche, over a beautiful clafouti? There’s also that recipe for Sweet Pickled Cherry Tomatoes, a jar of which Chef Virant gave me once for helping him at an event. Those were really good. Oh, I see where this is going.
And that’s the root of this book – it’s written by a chef who is deeply committed to supporting local farms, using produce seasonally and preserving it in interesting ways to use year round. It’s not just a bunch of recipes on a page; he tells you what to do with the stuff, how he and his cooks use these products in his restaurants in ways that enhance the dishes. I should also mention that the recipes are fairly manageable – small batch so you’re not stirring giant cauldrons, dropping a lot of money on flats and flats of fruit and then left with a wall of colorful jars you don’t know what to do with. Problem solved. And c’mon, the guy took classes with Christine Ferber. Instant cred with that one.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: RAMPING UP FOR THE SEASON. I find nothing more satisfying than preserving stuff in jars. Lately I’ve gone all Laura Ingalls Wilder over here and it makes me happy. Pickling these things makes me feel like I’m in on a big secret, like I’m one of the cool kids with my four little jars. I can’t wait to bust these things out with the right crowd (um, can’t be just anybody you know.) And you can bet one of the first things I’ll make is that martini. Double bonus booze factor!
PICKLED RAMPS from Paul Virant’s The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux
makes 4 pints
While the recipe calls for champagne vinegar, I had an abundance of white wine vinegar so that’s what I used.
2 cups + 7 fluid ounces champagne or white wine vinegar (23 ounces)
scant 1 ½ cups water (11 ½ ounces)
scant 2 cups sugar (11 ½ ounces)
4 teaspoons kosher salt (1/2 ounce)
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 ½ pounds ramps, cleaned and trimmed (3 pounds untrimmed)
- For the jars: Scald 4 pint jars in a large pot of simmering water fitted with a rack for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place the jar rings and lids in a pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a simmer to soften the rubber seal. Keep on low until needed.
- Blanch the ramps: In a large pot of boiling, salted water, blanch the ramps for 1 minute. Drain.
- For the brine: In a medium pot, bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a boil. Keep hot.
- Fill the jars: Right before filling, remove the jars from the water.
- In each warm jar, place 1 garlic clove and ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes.
- Pack the ramps into the jars, bulb at the bottom.
- Transfer the brine into a pitcher or measuring cup with a pour spout and fill the jars, leaving a ½” space from the jar rim.
- Check the jars for air pockets, adding more brine if necessary.
- Seal with lids and screw on the bands until snug but not tight.
- Process: Place the jars back to the pot and add enough water to cover by about 1”, if needed.
- Bring the water to a boil and process the jars for 10 minutes (start the timer when the water reaches a boil).
- Turn off the heat and leave the jars in the water for two minutes.
- Remove the jars from the water and let cool completely. You should hear “pings” as the lids seal.
- Once the jars are completely cooled, press the lid. If it gives or springs back, your jars didn’t seal. This means these jars aren’t shelf stable and have to be stored in the fridge.