In season for just a few weeks each spring, mild, oniony/garlicky ramps need little more than olive oil, butter, Parmesan cheese, pasta and a fried egg to make a satisfying vegetarian dinner. If you can’t find ramps, you can substitute leeks. Recipe below.
The other day, Marion called excitedly from her office, saying she would be bringing home some ramps. I knew I would be turning the kitchen over to her for this week’s post.
Last week when my friend Karin and I were talking about stuff we’d recently eaten, she told me she’d just made spaghetti with ramps, and I was immediately excited. She’d found the ramps at the Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand market. Immediately I called the market and began pestering the cheerful, cordial souls there for fresh ramps.
A few days later, the market got an e-mail—someone was going out to hunt for ramps right then. By the end of the workday, they had arrived—fresh and beautiful. Where did these come from? I asked. The answer was hazy, deliberately so. The Farmstand market shrouds its source in mystery, to prevent the general public from knowing where to find these trendy onions. But, I was assured, the ramps had been foraged by an organization devoted to sustainable harvest practices. This was conveyed to me with such gentle insistence that the first thing I did when I got home was Google ramps and sustainability.
Ramps, also called wild leeks and botanically known as Allium tricoccum, extend across much of eastern North America. This USDA map shows their distribution.
And it turns out that in some parts of their range, their overharvesting is quite a serious concern. In the Appalachians, the ramp is so abundant that it can still support several annual ramps festivals. But in parts of its range where it was never that abundant to begin with, thanks to its surging popularity ramps are in trouble. [I'm talking to you, Quebec and Ontario.] And in some parts of the US Northeast, recent years have seen brutal overdigging that has destroyed extensive ramp populations. In areas where ramps are under stress, some cooks are now harvesting leaves only—just one or two per plant, and letting the bulb and a leaf remain in the ground. In other areas, foragers are protecting ramps through the social contract—agreeing among themselves not to overdig and to keep their sites secret.
Here are a couple of other things. First, ramps were an important part of the diet of Native Americans, valued because they were the first wild greens of spring. And second, one theory about the origin of the name Chicago is that it is a version of a Native American word for ramps. Apparently, before there was a city here, there were ramps, in odiferous profusion.
Which brings us to the real topic—the flavor. Ramps are definitely onions, and the flavor differs from cultivated species first in its interesting meld of tastes—kinda onion, kinda garlic—and also in its persistence. Regular onions have a bigger taste, but ramps are more determined to make themselves known, and then once you’ve eaten them, they stick around longer. Figure a day or so. The delicate onion taste plays beautifully with the Parmesan, and when you break the yolk of the fried egg and mix it in with the pasta, it combines with the olive oil create a delicious, silky sauce and a vegetarian meal that completely satisfies.
Ramp season is brief—three or four weeks at best. But if you cannot get ramps, you can substitute leeks. They won’t be the same, but they’ll be just as nice. And that way you can make this dish all year round.
Ramps with Linguine and Fried Egg
1/2 pound ramps
12 ounces linguine fini
6 tablespoons olive oil
Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup freshly grated plus 1 tablespoon
1 tablespoon butter
A quick note: If you happen to have two people cooking together, it helps this dish come together at the end. If not, one person can easily manage it.
First, put a pot of water on the stove to boil, for cooking the pasta. While it is heating up, wash the ramps thoroughly [see Kitchen Notes]. Cut the root end off and discard it [or save it for your compost pile]. Slice off the white part of each ramp. Peel off the very thin white outer layer and put that in your discard pile too. Take the ramps over to the sink and rinse, rinse, rinse, to remove any trace of dirt and grit. Blot everything with paper towels or whirl it in a salad spinner.
Chop the white parts quite fine. Take the green leaves and stack them, then slice in half lengthwise. If the leaves are very large, also slice them crosswise—I like to do this at an angle so all the pieces have approximately the same shape.
When the water comes to a boil, toss in a little salt and then add the pasta. Cook it until al dente. Reserve about a half cup of cooking water, just in case, and drain the pasta well.
In a deep skillet, heat the olive oil. Grind a lot of black pepper into the oil and let it heat with the oil to infuse it. Pour in the white parts of ramp all at once and stir to coat with the oil. Cook for about three minutes, until translucent. Then add the green parts. Stir them to coat with the oil and cook until they are wilted—about 90 seconds.
This is the point where the significant other becomes significant. Once the ramps are cooking, in a separate nonstick skillet, Cook #2 now heats the butter and carefully starts to fry the eggs, so that they remain individual and neat. We like this dish with the eggs turned once so they are over easy.
While Cook #2 is frying the eggs, Cook #1 pours all the pasta into the deep skillet with the sautéed ramps. Toss everything together over low heat, gently mixing the pasta with the oil and ramps. You know how, so often, when you are mixing your pasta into your whatever, it really doesn’t all mix together? The non-pasta parts fall to the sides or the bottom? Well, this actually does mix together. Quite rewarding.
Pour the half cup of Parmesan over the pasta and continue to toss and stir. If it looks at all clumpy or stubborn, add a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water to smooth it out. Use your judgment in how much to add.
When the pasta, ramps, oil and cheese are all mixed together, dish out onto individual dinner plates or soup plates, and top each with a fresh fried egg. Sprinkle a very small amount of cheese over all, then a bit more fresh ground pepper and salt, and serve. Wonderful.
Dirty. The ramps at our Farmstand market were very clean, but most often, if you find ramps at a farmer’s market, they will probably be pretty sandy and grubby. Trim off the root end, then rinse well under running water. Unless your ramps are very fresh, you may also need to peel off the outermost white layer from the bulb.
Clean. If you make this dish using leeks instead of ramps, prepare two or three leeks by slicing them lengthwise and carefully rinsing, fanning them under cold running water. Then, using the white and pale-yellow parts only, slice them fine straight across.
Home grown. And, interestingly, if you have an eastern woodland with a nice forest canopy and rich, moist soil, plus patience, you can cultivate them.