Before asparagus, before rhubarb, and before morel mushrooms there are wild leeks. If asparagus is the King of Spring then the ramp (aka wild leek) is the Prince. A prince more like Harry then William with a wild streak that just loves to bare it all in the naturalness of its surroundings. Strong and stately, with leaves that stand above the forest floor, the ramp is the first vegetation available for harvest after the winter thaw.
The ramp, formally known as Allium tricoccum is also known by many other names including: wild leek, forest leek, spring onion, or wild garlic. As you can guess, ramps look and taste like garlic and onion. A much sought-after occurrence in the food-lover world, the hike alone to find these spring temptations is worth adorning rubber boots and an orange safety vest. I forgot my small spade on my first day foraging but on the second day I was ready for digging. I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful spring morning.
Ramps grow across much of the Eastern US and Canada including Southwestern Ontario. With a tell-tale pair of medium-length green leaves and a slightly pinky/purple stalk that fades to a white bulbous end, ramps are easily visible on the forest floor. Before the tree canopy fills in, patches of ramps pop out of the damp ground to absorb as much sunlight as possible. Once you identify one patch of ramps, other patches will 'suddenly' appear almost like the hidden image in a Magic Eye picture.
Because of their popularity by chefs and restaurants in recent decades, ramps have become endangered in some areas and are in fact illegal or restricted to harvest in the province of Quebec. Here in Elgin County there isn't much of a demand for wild leeks (nor restaurants that feature seasonal menus) so it isn't difficult to source them growing out in the wild. Before trampling into the woods off some rural sideroad, be sure to ask permission from the farmer/landowner (as to not trespass or be shot at by wild turkey hunters) and absolutely never, ever take anything from a conservation area.
When you find a patch of ramps, harvest sustainably by only taking a few stalks from each patch. A good rule of thumb is to never take more than 1/4 of the plants as it can take several years for the ramps to mature. If you dig up the entire patch, it will not regrow and there will be nothing left to harvest in the future. Ramps are a rare treat to celebrate the beginning of spring and it is a good idea to treat them like champagne: a little bit is exciting and worthy of toasting but too much will leave you with a hangover.
Cooking with Ramps
One reason for the lack of popularity in ramps in this area may be that folks have no idea of what to do with them*. Whenever I'm asked, I always answer, "treat them like onions and garlic". (*Another reason may be because it takes a lot of work to find them, dig sustainably, then clean them.) Both the green leafy part and the bulbs are edible although the leaves can be somewhat tough to chew. When the leeks are young and first appear, I find the flavour to be milder and flesh more tender than the older plants. The larger, older bulbs are still very much a delicacy in their own right but can pack a pungent punch which isn't always desired by garlic-phobes.
Ramps are great sauteed with butter or olive oil and used in as a condiment to barbequed steaks, on sandwiches, or as a topping for pizza. Grill ramps on the barbeque with other spring vegetables (such as asparagus and radishes) for a simple side dish. Other ideas include wild leek soup, wild leek omelets, or wild leek risotto. Pickling ramps is a wonderful method of preserving the harvest for a taste of spring in the winter (or to use in Sunday morning Caesars after Saturday nights martinis). This year I am going to try my hand at fermenting a small batch of ramps similar to kimchi and sauerkraut. The green leaves can be pureed to make a pesto to spread on toasted bread or to use in vinaigrette.
Grilled Ramps with Crossroad's Sheepsmilk Cheddar Cheese - Recipe
This is more of an inspirational idea as opposed to a recipe but the method works well for grilling many vegetables. Substitute any seasonal produce for the ramps (such as asparagus, zucchini, red or green onions, etc.) to make a quick and simple accompaniment to barbequed chicken, fish, or beef. The vegetables can be served as a side dish, on a salad (add a splash of red wine vinegar when serving) with hard boiled eggs and grilled new baby potatoes, or in a sandwich or burger. Because of the quickness of this method, it works really well to grill the vegetables just after you remove your cooked meat from the grill. While your meat is resting the veggies can cook and everything will be ready at the same time.
20 ramps, scallions, or asparagus spears cleaned and trimmed
12 radishes trimmed and halved
2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
fresh crack black pepper
finely grated sheepsmilk cheddar cheese (substitute Parmesan, Asiago, or other hard cheese)
1 T red wine vinegar (optional if using on a salad)
Coat the vegetables in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Over medium heat, place the vegetables onto a hot grill and cook until slightly coloured and tender, about 5-7 minutes, turning several times throughout. Remove from grill and serve immediately.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.