Can’t grow anything in your garden? Try ramps
Published: April 27, 2011
Yay, winter is finally maybe over, and now it’s spring, season of rebirth and new beginnings, lambs and April showers and unicorns and rainbows, hooray. Alas, for me it is a time of fairly joyless reckoning, when I am reminded of the top three endeavors I’ve actually put effort into being good at but still really, really suck at: golf, Lithuanian-style Easter-egg dyeing, and gardening. There, I said it. And of those three, gardening is the most vexing, since failure carries the consequence of not getting food.
I possess a black thumb of withering death. If I’d been born into a preindustrial farming community, best-case scenario is I’d be shunned. Back when I lived in apartments, it wasn’t as painful, since apartment dwellers are not really expected to grow things. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but container plants didn’t produce jack. Even the upside-down hanging tomato plant was a complete failure. So when I moved into a place with an actual backyard, I was filled with fuck-yeah optimism and tried my hand at a for-real garden. But despite hedging my bets by throwing money at the project, i.e., starting off with boutique (not from Walmart) grown-ass plants, using a shit ton of prefertilized moisture-retaining growing medium, and even spraying precious, precious beer on my plants to prevent aphids or fungal infections or something, I managed about five pounds each of tomatoes and peppers from two dozen plants. As a memorial of my shame, I left my “garden” untouched, a graveyard of wispy stalks and fallen-over tomato cages. The very next year, it became absolutely verdant with all manner of non-fruit-bearing, not-planted-by-me plant life. Touché, universe. The only plants immune to my death touch are weeds.
Nevertheless there is an undeniable, even primal allure to getting food old-school style, and so I tried my hand at foraging back in 2007 (“City Gardens,” Eat Me, Nov. 7, 2007). And although I met with some limited success, it’s extremely time-consuming and the edibles I got were not exactly things from which you could build a meal. In fact, the quarry that eluded me utterly, and something upon which one could base a meal, were ramps, which were then experiencing what was probably their zenith of popularity and culinary trendiness. So I attributed my inability to find any to scarcity, since even then there were worries that wild plants were being over-harvested.
Ramps, for those who are unfamiliar, are freaking delicious. They are in the onion and garlic family, and look sort of like largish scallions, except the leaves are a bit broader and floppy, and the bulbs are tinged with purple. They have a really heady, garlick-y odor, and fresh ones have a sort of superconcentrated onioniness that creeps up on you after initial mildness. The leaves are tender and can be used as an herb, eaten raw, or sautéed, and the intensely flavored bulbs can be used like onions, as a flavoring agent or pickled. Ramps seem to pair really well with eggs, whether it’s just chopped up and sprinkled upon or to spike a homemade mayo or Hollandaise sauce (ramp mayo makes for a pretty stupendous shrimp salad). If you are lucky enough to acquire a whole lot of ramps, a) shut up and b) a great spring soup can be made with a broth made from the bulbs, garnished with chopped leaves, peas, and lemon zest. Allium tricoccum is native to the United States, and apparently “Chicago” is derived from a Native American term for “skunk place,” referring to an area where lots of ramps were to be found. Their strong flavor and early harvesting season have made ramps a real prize for those who can find them, both as a fresh ingredient after a long winter of preserved food and as a medicinal or restorative, often utilized as an ingredient in tonics.
Most importantly though, they’re wild, as in they just do their jobs and grow, without any help from humans—no fertilizer, fancy soil, or beer showers needed. They’re freaking weeds, man! And it suddenly all made sense—I may suck at growing inbred crybabies that needs constant coddling and watering and hugs and shit, but ramps? They’re hard, from the streets, independent, and hopefully, relatively death-proof like their backyard kin.
But being prized as they are, even if they’re not found on as many specials menus now as in years past, they’re exceedingly hard to find in markets, let alone in the actual woods. And given worries of ever-dwindling wild populations, plus with my lack of foraging skill, the outlook wasn’t good. Enter one Glen Facemire, proprietor of what he claims to be the only ramp farm in the world (rampfarm.com). A clearly awesome individual posted on a local foraging forum that he/she had purchased 2,000 ramp bulbs from Facemire: 1,400 to plant in the yard, and the rest to put back into the wilds of Baltimore County. How cool is that? Some straight-up Johnny Appleseed action right there.
But more helpful to me was the knowledge that growing at home was indeed possible, and that there was a retailer from which to get plants. Turns out you can start from either seeds or bulbs, the latter being more expensive, but the former taking up to 18 months to germinate and up to several years to mature. So yeah, I ordered the bulbs—in fact, the last few dozen that the ramp-farm guy had left, since I was so late in contacting him (the last week of March). He was nice enough to call me beforehand to make sure they would grow where I planned to plant them, and when I pressed him for care tips, he told me, “Well, they’re wild plants, so they should pretty much take care of themselves, as long as they have decent shade and some leaf cover to mimic their natural environment. You shouldn’t even have to water ’em.” Fucking yes.
So when I got my little perforated box of baby—well, more accurately, young adult—ramps, all I did was clear some abandoned gardening supplies from the shadiest corner of my yard, put ’em straight into the city dirt, and scatter some of last year’s unraked leaves over them. There wasn’t but an inch or so of green leaf on them, so I resisted my urge to pinch off a taste (they already smelled so good), and instead resorted to berating them for not growing faster, although they’d only been in the ground for, like, an hour. But when I went back to check on them the next day, and I swear I’m not making this up, a few of them had grown a full inch of new leaf. In a week, most of them were a few inches long, and as of this writing, the whole patch is a veritable tangle of imminent deliciousness, perhaps a week or so from harvest. Yes, here it comes—they really did grow like weeds.
Should ramps be available at local markets at all, it will be right now (end of April) and for the next couple of weeks. You can also order them from rampfarm.com. You can find some general tips of finding them wild online, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re already very good at it, or you don’t really care about actually succeeding. Kind of like fly fishing. I’ve found them for sale exactly one time each at Potung Trading on Park Avenue and at the Waverly farmers market around mid-May; both times they were pretty tired looking and wan, but I bought them anyway and they tasted OK, but the leaves were dried out and tough.
The green tops go south fast, and should be used as quickly as possible. If you want to stretch out your stash, you can chop or puree the leaves and mix them into a compound butter, an Italian-style pesto, or even just in some oil or water to make a paste and freeze in those ice cube trays that make tiny ice cubes. Dried ramps have very little flavor. The bulbs are a bit hardier, but they too can be frozen, just as-is, or pickled. Ramps are good raw as a salad component or simply sauteed to wilting. I usually can only find small amounts at a time, so I like to eat the best looking ones raw, and parcel the rest out into as many dishes as possible.
Spring Tonic to Get One’s Blood Rosed Up
Note: A “tonic” can be anything medicinal, or for “toning” up one’s body or mind or whatever, thus ramps themselves are sometimes regarded as a tonic. Below is a recipe for a liquid tonic that I just made up, have actually tried, and can attest that it sort of makes me want to either punch or make hasty love to something.
4 cups water
2-3 ramps, chopped up
4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp blackstrap molasses (or unsulphured molasses)
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Simmer water, ramps, and ginger for about 3 minutes, strain, add remaining ingredients, allow to cool before consuming.
Ramp and Pea Soup
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water
4-5 ramps, bulbs finely chopped and tops cut into 2-3 inch long strips
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon zest
salt to taste
1) Melt butter in a pot over medium-low heat, add ramp bulbs, and cook for about a minute, then add flour, mixing thoroughly. Cook for a minute, making sure it doesn’t brown.
2) Slowly add stock or water, whisking as you go to combine thoroughly. If using fresh peas, add them now. Simmer for about 2 minutes.
3) Add remaining ingredients, adjust salt/lemon juice for flavor, and simmer for another 2 minutes.
Other Things Ramps Are Good In
- A garnish on poached eggs, scrambled eggs, or deviled eggs (note that adding them into deviled egg filling doesn’t work so well)
- As an herb in mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce
- Added to potato, chicken, and especially shrimp salad
- Lubed with oil and grilled whole
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