By Paris Wolfe
When Jeremy Umansky was at culinary school in 2006, a professor took him foraging in the Hudson Valley. They were looking for fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms, and ramps. Umansky –a James Beard award semi-finalist, and owner of Larder Deli in Cleveland – was converted. He has been harvesting that harbinger of spring, ramps, ever since.
For those who haven’t yet heard, the ramp – also called a wild leek — is a species of wild onion (Allium tricoccum) that is native to North America. The bulbs resemble a scallion, but the leaves are wide and flat. They cover Appalachian forest floors before trees fully leaf out. The flavor is a mix of garlic and onion. And, if you eat too many raw, you will sweat that aroma.
Ramps are high in vitamins A and C, and in lore, they are considered a blood cleanser and part of a good spring tonic. In April and May, ramp festivals and dinners are common throughout their growing region and the plants often pop up on farmers market stands.
A staple of Appalachian cooking for centuries, today’s chefs are incorporating them into their menus. “We use every part of the plant,” Umansky says. “We use the greens the way you’d use any fresh herb. We use leaves in a salad, for a pesto, chopped finely as a seasoning.” He takes inspiration from a variety of cooking styles including Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, and more. He also pickles the bulb for a garnish long after the season has ended.
Cooking, he warns, will mellow the flavor. “That’s why we like to use the greens as fresh as possible,” he says. “If we really want that ramp flavor, we’ll treat them as a scallion.”
“Last year we shifted our approach and only plucked greens, no bulbs,” he noted. “Every few years we do that to give the bulbs a break and keep our private patch healthy.”
For those who don’t have Umansky’s training and imagination, books and blogs inspire. Perhaps one of the best cookbooks about ramps is Ramps, The Cookbook: Cooking with the Best-Kept Secret of the Appalachian Trail (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012).
The fully illustrated book brings together recipes from chefs, food writers, and bloggers around North America. They’re good with eggs for breakfast or in a curry for dinner, and they are delicious in soups, fritters, and jelly. Or, try pairing Cream of Ramps with Wild Asparagus soup with ramp pesto cornmeal muffins.
Editor’s note: West Virginia hosts many ramp festivals in the spring. Check out this website for more info on events held throughout the state – this is a good time to plan next year’s trip! Ramps, like many wild plants, are vulnerable to overharvesting, which depletes native populations. As always, please purchase plant material from reputable sources and/or practice sustainable foraging techniques. United Plant Savers suggests harvesting one leaf per plant, harvesting the leaves only, and even learning how to grow your own.
Paris Wolfe is an award winning writer of business, food, and travel articles.