It will never cease to amaze me what variety there is when it comes to food. There are so many things I’ve never heard of, never had the opportunity to taste, never had the pleasure of experiencing. Everywhere you go, there are new flavors just waiting to be discovered.
Which is probably why I love watching shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel, where I get to see a small glimpse into cuisines which I can only dream of one day having the opportunity to try.
Sometimes, though, new and exciting things are hiding right under your nose, or just outside the door. Ramps are one of those. They’re native to the Great Lakes area, and yet I’ve never had them until now.
Ramps (also called “wild leeks”) are in the same family as leeks and onions, but are only in season for a few short weeks of Spring. They grow wild in the woods between April and early May, so you have to know where to look (or what farmer’s markets to check) in order to find them.
That kind of seasonality and scarcity is rare in the world of food these days. We’re so used to having everything available year-round on produce store shelves, it’s almost hard to remember a time when you had to know where to look and when to forage in order to find the best ingredients.
While there isn’t anything inherently special about a ramps flavor (an earthy combination of onion and garlic, like a green onion with broad, tender leaves), what makes it unique really is its brief presence. If more foods were harder to come across, and rarer to enjoy, I think we would appreciate them that much more. The ramp is a pleasant little reminder never to take for granted the bounty we have around us at all times.
As I mentioned earlier, I had never eaten ramps until now. I’d heard about them again and again in cookbooks and television shows, but every year managed to miss the short window they were available. I only remembered them just in time this year, and was lucky enough to find them at a local produce stand.
Aside from the tangle of roots, the entire plant is edible, from the bulb up to the leaves. The white bulbs have a sharp, onion flavor, while the leaves are mellower, like garlic-infused spinach. Sauteed simply in butter, these alone are worth trekking the woods to find.
While there are plenty of culinary uses for these rare beauties, I couldn’t resist putting them as the star of the show in a pesto — not only because it’s delicious and versatile, but easily freezable to savor for as long as possible.
Have you ever had ramps? If so, what’s your favorite way to use them? I’d love to know!
Wild Ramp Pesto
Makes about 1 1/2 cups — adapted from Food 52
12-15 ramps, washed
3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (or walnuts, or sunflower seeds)
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/2-1 lemon, juiced
1/2-3/4 cup good quality olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Wash the ramps well under cool, running water, and trim away the roots from the bulbs (if attached). Once clean, cut the white parts away from the greens, and give them a rough chop. Saute the whites in a few TBSP of olive oil for 2-3 minutes to soften and mellow the flavor. Let cool. (This step is optional — if you prefer your pesto to have a strong bite, leave them raw.)
2. Add the ramp leaves, bulbs (and olive oil used to saute them), nuts, and parmesan cheese to the bowl of a food processor. Add a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse a few times, then blend while drizzling in olive oil, until the mixture takes on a pesto consistency.
3. Stop and scrape down the sides of the food processor, and give the pesto a taste. Adjust the salt, pepper, and lemon juice as needed, and blend again, adding a bit more olive oil if necessary.
4. Pour finished pesto into clean, airtight jars and store in the fridge for up to 5-7 days, or in the freezer indefinitely. If you aren’t planning to use it right away, press a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pesto to keep the color and flavor bright. Alternatively, spoon pesto into a clean ice-cube tray (preferably one dedicated to savory foods), drizzle a little extra olive oil over the top of each cube, and freeze until solid. Transfer to a labeled zip-top bag, and store in the freezer until ready to thaw and use.