The Temptress of Spring
The ramps are late this year. I was looking through my Farm Journal from past years and I’ve picked ramps as early as April 2nd here on the Currant Farm. One year I even picked them in the snow but this year they’re late. Seems like most things are. Ramps are one of my favorite things to forage in the spring. In fact, they are the first edible jewel of the woods.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum) have an illustrious history. The name “ramp” comes from the plant’s similarity and relation to the English plant called “ransom” (Allium ursinus) which was pronounced “ramson” by the first English settlers. Many Algonquin speaking natives called this early spring treasure shikaakwa. In Robert de LaSalle’s memoir of 1679, he named an area on the southwestern banks of Lake Michigan after this plant because there were so abundant in the area. He phonetically wrote his understanding of the native pronunciation as “Checagou.” Today, we know the area as Chicago, named after ramps.
Ramps belong to the onion, scallion and leek family. They are a slow growing perennial and often found in large colonies in the company of deciduous trees in rich, moist soils. The two slender, glossy green leaves can be easily spotted against the drab leaf litter from the previous fall and compete only with young skunk cabbage for attention this time of year. As with all Allium, they grow from bulbs which along with the leaves are edible but I prefer to leave the bulbs for next year’s crop.
The cheerful green foliage made more so by their muted surroundings has a delicate onion flavor but more subtle and lends itself to many wonderful recipes. I’ve included one of my favorites below. A century ago, before refrigeration, winters were seasonal, personal and hard. Diets consisted of root vegetables stored in the cellar and game. Ramps were the first green fare one could forage and eat after months of cold days and long nights. Early spring was celebrated with Ramp festivals and many welcomed the purported ability of their mineral rich leaves to cleanse their stagnant winter blood. When the first verdant tips pierce the lifeless leaf litter of autumn with the promise of rebirth and renewal, one is awash with an overwhelming sense of optimism. It’s confirmation that no matter the struggles of winter and life, the earth will once again smile with us and all is well.
But this sensuous temptress, wantonly dancing among the fallen leaves in her bright green peignoir, lingers for but a couple of weeks. She appears when we need her most, lifts our spirits, brightens our menu, kisses our lips with her essence of savor, impels us to fall in love with her and then, when we begin to think we will have her forever, she’s gone.
Cheers from the farm,
Makes about 4 cups
1 pound ramp leaves and stems, chopped
1/2 sweet onion such as Vidalia, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup dry white wine such as a sauvignon blanc.
3 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup grated Reggiano Parmigiano
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Cook the onion, white pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
- Add wine, then boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, until evaporated completely.
- Add broth and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft, about 20 minutes.
- Stir in ramp leaves and boil 1 minute.
- Working in batches, purée soup in a blender until very smooth, about 1 minute per batch (be extremely careful when blending any hot liquid), then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large heatproof bowl, pressing hard on and then discarding solids.
- Return soup to clean pot and bring just to a boil. Whisk in cheese and butter until smooth. Season with salt.
- Garnish with olive oil.