The ramp is a wild onion native to North America and is sometimes called spring onion, wild leek, or wild garlic. It is known by the Latin name Allium tricoccum.
Long appreciated by country folk and eaten as a spring tonic, the ramp has in recent years taken on a mantle of cult status among chefs. As a result, there are more people enjoying ramps than ever before.
Read on for more information and ideas for enjoying ramps this spring.
Why Are They Called Ramps?
According to John Mariani, author of “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the word ramp comes from “rams,” or “ramson,” from Elizabethan dialect, referring to wild garlic. The word is first mentioned in English print in 1530, and was used by English immigrants of the southern Appalachian Mountains, where ramps grow in abundance. In fact, West Virginia celebrates the spring season with ramp festivals and events.
Ramps grow from South Carolina to Canada and are often the very first green thing to appear in the dun-colored, winter-weary forest. You really cannot mistake the ramp for anything else in the bare forest. Just break a leaf and if you smell a garlicky-onion scent, you’ve found yourself some ramps.
The ramp resembles a scallion with a pungent bulb below ground, with dark green, broad leaves that grow about six inches tall. The lower part of the stem, near the white bulb can be tinted with a reddish-purple color.
Ramps are most often found near the banks of streams or rivers, in moist areas that are shaded, and on hillsides. They grow in clumps and spread outward, so are often spotted in large patches of green leaves. Ramps are an easy and safe plant for the beginner forager to pick and eat.
Cooking with Ramps
Since ramps are collected in the forest, the bulb and roots are always coated in dirt, so they must be heavily rinsed. Cut off the roots as close to the bulb as possible, and run the green leaves under water carefully. Bugs, twigs, pine needles and other detritus of the forest floor might hitch a ride on your ramps.
The leaves and bulbs are both edible, though are often cooked separately, as the bulbs take a longer to cook through. The bulbs offer a punch of garlic flavor to any dish that might benefit from that: soups, eggs, rice or potato dishes.
Ramps can be eaten raw, as you would a scallion, though they will be much stronger in flavor. In central Appalachia, ramps are most often fried with potatoes in bacon fat (though duck fat does nicely, too), or with scrambled eggs and bacon.
Whether you sauté ramps as you would onions, or grill them whole, add them to a casserole or gratin, or mix them into a cornbread stuffing, the only time to eat them is in early spring.
As is often the case with seasonal foods, you end up with a whole lot in a short period of time. Ramp greens will cook up like spinach or kale, which is to say, they will shrink a lot. The greens can be separated from the bulbs and enjoyed as described above, or they can be made into pesto, which preserves them for meals to come.
The bulbs that remain can be pickled and eaten as a garnish, or frozen to be added to recipes throughout the year.
Fun Fact About Ramps
The city of Chicago is named after this fragrant plant. The Native Americans called the garlicky plant that grew abundantly at the south end of Lake Michigan “shikaakwa” or “chicagoua.” And the name stuck to the region. The French fur traders who recorded this in the 1670s called the plant “ail sauvage,” meaning wild garlic.