Ramps are special. We have wild onions in California, but they don’t come close to the taste, texture, and versatility of ramps (don't get me wrong, we have wild mushrooms that East Coasters would kill for). Since all the wild ingredients I use for The Wild Kitchen are local, the closest I ever get to using ramps is the wild onion. Our wild onion is essentially a scallion, which is how I treat it. Good chopped up and sautéed, with nice white flowers that I use for garnish. A ramp is a whole other animal.
The roots have a biting onion flavor, and bulblike crunch that begs to be pickled. The greens, which can be grilled, broiled, sautéed or seared, have just the right amount of the bulbs onion aroma, but a great texture that really rounds out a plate. They are a perennial (grow back each year), and the plant that gave Chicago its name. Chicagou was the word for ramp in the local dialect, and an abundant plant in the area when the city was being settled.
I’m back for a week visiting my mom in Plainfield, and wanted to take advantage of the best foraging season on the East Coast. The prime focus for me was ramps. The woods are amazing in Vermont. The smell of the trees, moss, gurgle of creeks, shade of the maples. All with the bonus of an abundance of plant and animal life on the forest floor. I love California, but you just don’t get the same experience in our woods.
I grew up in Vermont, but my foraging career really started with wild mushrooms on the west coast, so I enlisted the help of a local expert to help me find my prize. Annie is a local gardner/naturalist/friend of the family, who was nice enough to show me one of her prime spots. Not that they’re hard to find in VT. Ramps (or wild leeks as they’re called here) are everywhere. It would have taken me days to pick even half of what I saw. Along the way she introduced me to some edibles I’d never heard of.
One was toothwort. It's a 3-leaves low growing plant. It has thin dull green leaves with serrated edges. The roots (and leaves to some extent) have an uncanny horseradish flavor. It’s pretty amazing actually. If I do a dinner in Vermont, this is definitely going to be included on the menu. Maybe a toothwort wasabi with local freshwater trout sashimi….Another thing that Annie introduced me to was the edibility of violet flowers. They don’t grow in abundance, so I would feel uncomfortable collecting them for a Wild Kitchen dinner, but they were great to try. They taste like wintergreen. Pretty cool. Another plant that grows here in abundance is wild ginger. We have this in CA, but I don’t see it much where I forage. There was a bunch on our walk, so I grabbed some of that too.
There's been some recent press on the over harvesting of ramps on the east coast, given their sudden spike in popularity. As far as I can tell it’s more theoretical than realistic. People see them in stores, so immediately assume they are being decimated. From people I’ve talked to up here, it hasn’t become a problem. I always live by the motto of never taking more than a third of whatever plant I’m harvesting, that way I can be sure it will be there when I return next year.
I dug ramps for about 15 minutes and had almost more than I could carry, so I headed home. I washed them and cut off the bulbs, and for the next 3 days I ate the greens at every meal. Tossed in garlic and olive oil and wrapped in tin foil on the grill, sautéed with salt and garlic with my eggs in the morning, and cut small and used raw to spice up potato salad. Even then I had a ton left. Since there was no way I could eat them all before I left (and because I wanted to bring some back west), I decided to pickle the bulbs. Most of the pickles I do are what are known as quick pickles. Basically hot brine that is poured a vegetable, and used within a week or so. I wanted to try something different with these, so I decided to do a proper can.
If you’re reading this blog, I imagine you have some experience canning, or at least understand the fundamental ideas behind it. If not, also cool, we’ve all got to start somewhere. The basic idea of canning is to submerge a veggie (or meat) into a hygienic environment (often vinegar), then boil the jar to create a vacuum that will push out any excess air. This creates an anaerobic environment where bacteria cannot grow, so preserves food longer. These pickles will last at least a month, or until you’ve eaten them all (which will probably be sooner):
2C white vinegar
1C white sugar
2T mustard seed (“T” =Tablespoon and “t”=teaspoon)
1T fennel seed
2T black peppercorns
4 piece wild ginger root
2T kosher salt
4 piece toothwort root (both optional of course, but if you don’t use them add a small piece of fresh horseradish)
2 lb fresh ramps
4 - 12 OZ canning jars
Water bath canner (if you have it. If not a pot large enough to fit the jars will suffice)
1 medium pot
Baking pan or Pyrex casserole
First you want to get your liquids boiling, while they heat up you’ll have time to clean your ramps. Fill your pot with all your picking ingredients (minus the ramps). Bring them to a boil, then turn off heat. Fill your water bath canner up 3/4 with water, and boil. If you are using a pot, fill with water (leaving room for the area the jars will displace). Preheat your oven to 350F
Sterilize your jars: An easy way to sterilize jars is wash them with soap and water, then bake them on sheet pan in the oven at 200F until you’re ready to use them. Got that tip from Slow Jams. http://www.chow.com/food-news/59073/the-easiest-way-to-sterilize-jars/
While those are heating up, clean your ramps. First give the ramps a good wash, peeling off any discolored skin on the root, and snapping the root (not the bulb) off. Then cut off the bulb just above where the green of the leaf begins. Save the leaves. I personally think they’re just as delicious as the bulbs. You can sauté them up for a side dish, or put them on sandwiches. Really delicious.
Now you want to fill your jars. I try to stand the ramps up, with the bulbs all facing down, but that’s really just an aesthetic choice. Just make sure there’s an inch clear below the rim of the jar. Pour over your nearly boiling pickling liquid, adding a root of ginger and toothwort, as well as a spoon of spices, to each jar. Screw on the lid.
Now for the can. If you’re using a regular pot, you’ll want to make sure the jars stand up straight, but that they don’t touch the metal bottom. There are fancy grills they sell for this, or you can do what I do, and put a dishtowel in the water to line the bottom of the pot. Just make sure it’s as flat as you can make it. Place the jars in the water, turn down to a simmer, and “cook” for 15 minutes. Make sure the water covers the jar (this is how you force out the air), add hot water from the tap if it needs it.
Take jars out with tongs, allow to cool, and you’re done! A lot of words for what is actually a pretty simple process. Clean veggies, put in jars, cover with vinegar, and force out air. As they cool you should hear a popping sound of the lid suctioning down. You might not hear the sound, but check to see that the lid is pressed in, that’s how you know the can worked.
If you make this recipe, give me a comment and let me know how it went. I haven’t tried it with the toothwort yet, and I’m definitely excited to see if the wasabi/horseradish flavor comes through. Also, if you've ever pickled the greens, let me know how that went. That's what I'll try next. Ramps!