Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In defense of the Ramp

For those who don’t know, ramps are a wild leek that is indigenous to the Appalachian region of the US. You can find them up and down the east coast starting in late March and early April and they are a very sought after vegetable for chefs and home cooks alike, especially chefs. They have a very unique flavor that has hints of garlic, sweet onion, leek and nuts. They really are very delicious and can be prepared in many different ways, the most popular being simply sautéed or pickled. I like eating them raw or pickling the bulbs and sautéing the greens as you would do spinach or chard.
There is a problem, however. Between chefs, there is a bit of a friendly competition to see who will be the first to have ramps on their menu, and this means that people start harvesting ramps when they just start poking up out of the ground. They are still premature at this point and conventional wisdom form all the locals I have spoken to, is that you shouldn’t eat them before mothers day. By that time they have developed the best flavor, the bulbs have grown to a nice size and there will be plenty for the taking.
They problem with this obsession to get the very first ramp is that it is causing a rapid depletion of the wild ramp population. It takes six years or more for one ramp plant to propagate to where you can actually start harvesting them without setting the plant back or damaging it. So, if you start taking the plants too early, you will irradiate that particular ramp patch pretty quickly. 
We have some ramps that were planted 2 years ago, and this spring we got 16 ramps. We planted another 25 or so given to us by our neighbor who has a nice patch that he started over 25 years ago with ramps he brought from West Virginia. Its a very nice ramp patch, but one restaurant in NY could use up the entire patch in one weekend, and it would take another 25 years for the ramps to re-grow to the same amount they are now! 

So, chefs, lets try to serve ramps with the respect they deserve, not just because it’s spring and you HAVE to have ramps. The ramps will thank you..... 

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