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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Ramps

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(*But were afraid to ask, for fear of looking uncool in your favorite restaurant)

Spring has sprung, and that means ramp season is officially in full swing. You know, ramps: those cute, terribly en vogue little vegetables with the slightly unappealing name, that sprout up yearly on every hip restaurateur’s menu, and whose hyper-seasonal presence has been known to spur long lines at farmers’ markets and clamor across the culinary internet. But what exactly are these little green wonders — and why are people so into them?

What are ramps?

A good way to define ramps might be to describe the negative space, i.e. what ramps aren’t. Ramps are not leeks, nor are they scallions, nor are they exactly shallots. Ramps — which are sometimes called wild leeks or spring onions, adding to the confusion — look like scallions, but they’re smaller and slightly more delicate, with one or two flat, broad leaves. Both the greens and the lower white stalks are edible. Ramps taste stronger than a leek, which generally has a mild onion flavor, and they’re more pungently garlicky than a scallion.

Why do chefs and cooks freak out about ramps?

Ramp season is short, and hence, quantities are limited. Ramps are typically foraged, like truffles, giving them an air of adventure. They’re also one of the first vegetables to emerge from the defrosting soil after a long winter; waiting for the first ramps of the season has the anticipatory excitement of waiting for Punxsutawney Phil to look for his shadow. Former Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin once told AP, “It’s like that elusive thing — the bad boyfriend, the jazzy car of the vegetable world.”

How do I cook with ramps?

Ramps are the gorgeous, perfect little cousin of the onion, so use them anywhere you might use other alliums. Turn them into pesto, compound butter, or vinaigrette. Keep the season going a little longer by pickling them. Or take some cues from chefs around the country.

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Harvesting wild ramps.

How much do ramps cost?

Ramps are priced like they’re in demand: While guides tend to estimate prices around $20 per pound or $5 for a small bunch, ramps went for $34.99 per pound last season from the specialty food purveyor D’Artagnan.

Should I freak about ramps?

As with all things, only in moderation. There are consequences to the annual ramp-age — namely, overharvesting. Wild foods advocate Russ Cohen has decried overeager ramp foraging in the past, saying that more sustainable harvesting is necessary, lest long-term ecological damage be done.

How can I get ramps sustainably?

If foraging your own ramps, Cohen has recommended picking just one leaf per plant and leaving the bulb in the ground so it can continue to reproduce for future years. And since ramps grow slowly, the National Agroforestry Center also recommends only harvesting portions should you encounter a ramp cluster in the wild, as opposed to the whole thing. It cites a 2004 study that recommends “harvesting no more than 10 percent of a patch and harvesting from the same patch only once every 10 years. In this way, natural populations have a chance to recuperate.”

When buying ramps, you might consider buying only ramp leaves if they’re available, or choosing from sellers who don’t sell the plant with its entire bulb. (In order to protect native ramp populations, the cultivation of ramps could also be a growth area as demand no doubt increases.) So sure, freak out, but in a controlled manner.

Where can I get my hands on some ramps?

Check your local farmers’ market. Otherwise, you might luck out at Whole Foods or produce markets. If all else fails, you can drop $162 for a five-pound box online and have them overnighted to you.

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