By Kathy Gunst
From the upcoming book, "Notes from a Maine Kitchen."
- Here & Now Recipes: From ramp mushroom tart to ramp butter
We set out early, heavily anointed with bug spray, sensibly dressed in long pants, socks, and good hiking shoes, but still we couldn’t fight off the mosquitoes. It was the last day of April, early morning, overcast, humid, and those bugs were out in force. You know that television ad where they spray a man with super hairy arms with a strong, toxic bug repellent and then leave the other arm unsprayed, and he puts his arms in a box full of mosquitoes and you watch them swarm his unsprayed arm? Well my entire body felt like that unsprayed arm.
Still, I was upbeat. We were on an early morning hike in search of the elusive ramp, or wild leek. For the past month my friend Hope and I, who walk our dogs in the woods near our house virtually every morning, had become obsessed with finding ramps. They were in our local specialty vegetable store (at close to $20 a pound), but we were determined to find them in the wild.
Obsession sounds like an exaggeration, a word chosen for dramatic impact. But I am really talking about true, blown-out obsession. Every day, on every walk, we talked about ramps the way most women talk about their children. We were sure the small green leaf unfurling near the stream in the nearby woods was a ramp. Nope. We were sure we would find them near the river, in a woody, hilly area. Nope. And when the weather suddenly turned hot, into the 80’s in mid-April, we were sure they’d shoot up through the leaves in the woods. Nope. I spent hours researching on the web, looking at pictures of ramps in their various stages. I even went so far as to buy half a pound of ramps at the vegetable store, shove them under my dog’s nose, and try to train her to find them like a truffle-hunting pig in the Italian countryside. “Chloe, ramps! Ramps, Chloe. Go find them, girl.”
Hope said she had a friend who knew where to find ramps. Like every other forager I’ve met, this friend was adamant that we not use her real name, or tell our exact location. So let’s just call the friend “Julie,” and let’s just say we were somewhere south of Portland. That’s it. I can’t tell you more. (You might try asking Chloe to lead you there.)
Three women, three dogs, three thousand mosquitoes. We walked through the woods, following a trail until Julie said “No! Down here,” and led us off trail down steep terrain towards a stream and a small pool of collected rainwater. We bushwhacked along this area for about ten minutes and then I saw a huge patch of gorgeous, oval-shaped, green leaves streaked with white and pale pink stripes down the center. I was in shock. All that talk, all those walks, all those misguided schleps through the woods, all those black flies and mosquitoes, and finally we had arrived at what appeared to be a field dotted with thousands of ramps.
They were buried under rocks and near rocks, like chickens hiding from a fox. They seemed to favor the moist, shady areas, with sandy soil. Although much of my research told me to hunt in sloped areas, this ramp patch was on a perfectly flat piece of land, right near a stream. We found them covered in leaves and mulch, their smooth green leaves popping through the brown earth. They weren’t all that easy to pull up and, for some strange reason, we hadn’t thought to bring shovels or bags or tools of any kind. I think we never really believed we would find them, that somehow we had made all this up. As if ramps or Allium trioccum, were simply a figment of our imagination.
If you’re out foraging and not sure you’ve got a ramp (and, like me, you worry about picking something dangerously inedible) you simply need to pull one up and snip off a piece of the leaf. If your nose is not assaulted by the strong scent of onion than you don’t have a ramp. (A member of the lily family, ramp’s leaves resemble a longer, wider, more elegant lily of the valley) And when you pull ramps out of the ground you’ll discover white, scallion-like bulbs, covered in thin, brown skin.
We picked quickly and intensely, barely talking. Within 15 minutes I had an armload of ramps — I figured around $100-worth at an upscale market —and an entire mosquito population intimately getting to know my arms, neck, and skin. There were so many ramp patches we could have easily filled a large suitcase, sold them in town, and paid off some serious bills. But we tried not to be greedy. As soon as we got back on the trail to head home the skies opened up and the rain came down, but it didn’t matter. You think a kid leaving a candy store with a bag full of treats cares about a little rain? That’s how it felt. We were drenched in the oncoming storm, coated in bugs, and I, for one, couldn’t have been happier.
Your first taste will be something you’re likely to remember for a long time. When raw, ramps have an overwhelming smell, like a cross between wild onions and dirty socks. They don't whisper. They scream, "Here I am, just try and ignore me." But cooking transforms ramps into a delicacy. Imagine taking a leek, a clove of garlic, a sweet Vidalia-type onion, a scallion, and a shallot, putting them all into a machine and extracting the single most distinguishing flavor element from each.
According to the late R.W. Apple, Jr., writing in the New York Times (April, 2003), “The origin of the name is in dispute. Most authorities, including the Department of Agriculture, consider `ramp' a shortened form of `ramsom,' which is an old name for the European counterpart of the ramp, Allium ursinum or bear garlic. `Ramson' is thought by some to come from the Old English word for wild leeks, hramsen, and by others, of a more romantic cast of mind, to denote `son of ram,' Aries being the sign under which ramps appear."
. I cleaned my stash of ramps well under cold running water, picking out pine needles and crumpled leaves. I pulled the brown skin off the bulbs and dried them off. Then I set out to work. I spent close to two weeks cooking with the ramps; I tried the leaves and bulbs in olive oil in a hot skillet for 5 minutes, and then fried a few eggs on top (page000); I pureed a batch and cooked them with sweet sea scallops (page000); I made a French-style tart with ramps and spring mushrooms (page000); I tried a grilled cheese and ramp sandwich; I grilled them over a charcoal fire with olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper; I made an exceptional ramp pesto; I sautéed them and then chopped them up finely and mixed them with butter (page000) to create ramp “garlic” bread. Ramps can dress up even the most basic food. A little wild leek made everything that came out of my kitchen taste better than ever.
Excerpted from Here & now resident chef Kathy Gunst's upcoming book, "Notes from a Maine Kitchen," to be published by Down East Books in September 2011.
This program aired on April 27, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.