OMG! Ramps! They’re all anyone can talk about for a few weeks, and then, suddenly, they’re gone. They’re like the Macarena of the food blogosphere. Now I get that they’re one of the first excellent greens to arrive in the spring (though a month later than my favorite, the ubiquitous wild garlic) and historically they have provided a much-needed jolt of vitamins and chlorophyll to people crawling out from under a hard winter. And they truly are a complex and stanky delicacy. But just because they’re wild doesn’t mean you should eat as many as you can before the season is over.
It’s been heartening to see the Times and other media outlets (read the sidebar on that one) try to dampen the fervor with which all manner of people attack their local woodlands looking for ramps this time of year; with any luck the same righteous yuppie enthusiasm that fueled the rampage in the first place will be supplanted by disdainful condescension for those who recklessly plunder local forests for free alliums. I do so look forward to hearing the hipster couple at the table next to me ask a waiter “are your ramps sustainably sourced?” on my next springtime trip to the city.
So instead of de rigeur vernal enthusiasm, here are some thoughts about how to ensure that this delicacy remains with us for a long time to come. First off, if you must forage, pick less than 5% of any patch you find. If someone else has been there first, tough shit. Keep walking. They grow slowly and need time to recover and spread. Second, of the ones you dig, pick the bigger ones. Third, of the ramps you bring home, plant at least 10% of your haul in an appropriate spot on your property. Over the course of a few years, you can build and then enjoy a bountiful harvest and never again have to trudge through the woods and put stress on a sensitive species.
Ramps grow in deciduous forests and love damp soil. They do not love full sun; they’re adapted to growing on the forest floor under a canopy that is fully leafed out within a few weeks of the ramps’ first appearance. Plant them in a partly or really shaded spot (adjacent wetness is a plus) under or near some hardwoods, away from conifers. Mulch them hard with the maple, oak, or similar leaves you rake up every fall and spring, and leave them alone. I have mine growing among my black currants underplanted with spearmint; the ramps fade just as the mint is really getting going, and currants are an understory plant so they like the part-sunny bed I put them all in. Do this in several spots and in a few years you’ll have all you need growing right next to your house. As an added bonus, you then get to chastise all your foraging friends about how they should grow their own as well. As every hipster food snob knows, haughty superiority is a vastly underrated condiment.
And so is ramp aioli. The impetus for this was the presence of a dozen gaudily decorated hard-cooked eggs in the fridge, which miraculously lasted much longer than their littler chocolate brethren. So deviled eggs (or their lazier, lower-class sibling egg salad) loomed as increasingly inevitable. Deviled eggs are pretty good in any form, but when you get real eggs and homemade mayo and funky ramps involved, they become something very much better.
This aïoli is truly a thing of beauty. Here’s what I used:
1 pastured egg yolk
4/5 cup olive oil
scant 1/5 cup freshly rendered bacon fat
1/2 t mustard oil
1/8 t truffle oil
Combine all the oils into a measuring cup with a pouring spout. Proportions can vary–use some neutral oil if you like, or more mustard oil to give it extra zing–but it should add up to a cup.
3 T maple-sumac vinegar (use homemade or bought cider vinegar in the unlikely event that you don’t have maple-sumac)
1 t good dijon or hot mustard
3-fingered pinch of salt
several grinds of pepper
6 or more ramp bulbs, chopped, and greens, also chopped but set aside
2 slices of crisp bacon, chopped or crumbled small
a dozen hard-cooked eggs, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise
put the egg yolk in the food processor or blender (or in a good mixing bowl with a towel wrapped around the base so it won’t walk away) and add all the non-oil stuff. Begin blending or whisking, and dribble in the oils in a spaghetti-thin stream. At about the halfway point you can allow the stream to thicken. Once emulsified, spatula it all out into a bowl and fold in the ramp greens and crumbled bacon.
Beat/pound/mix/mash the yolks with enough mayo to make a creamy paste. Taste for salt, heat, acidity and correct if needed. Spatula the mixture into a pastry bag and squeeze dollops into the concavities of the egg whites, which you’ve obviously arranged in a lovely mandala on like your best serving plate by now. Dust the tops of all the eggs with smoked paprika and Espelette pepper, and eat the living shit out of them. Save the rest of the aïoli for absolutely any damn thing. It’s that good. We used the rest of this batch as sauce for a platter of asparagus I picked during a short break from filthy studio drudgery.
If you live somewhere without ramps, or don’t want to contribute to the pressure being put on wild populations, buy some bulbs from the only commercial ramp farm in America. I buy some every winter (they’re in West Virginia, so I order in late February for planting as soon as the ground thaws; if you wait too long they ship you plants instead of bulbs). I’ve been doing it every year for five years now, and my patches are really coming along.
As with every other ingredient, you want to use them properly. And as with many other ingredients, growing them yourself is the easiest solution to any sourcing conundrums. They take to transplanting quite well. Don’t be an asshole and over-pick them in the wild (link to an excellent series of five posts on the subject); buy bulbs and plant a crop and be done with it. Managed properly, they’ll reward you forever and require no maintenance, which is more than you can say for just about anything else.