What You Should Know About Ramps, As Told By A Forager
It’s that time of year again: ramp season. We look forward to it every year upon each early-May visit to the farmers market at Union Square, where some of New York City’s top chefs are now on the prowl for the last week of ramps to be used in seasonal dishes at restaurants around the city.
Ramps are a wild bulb vegetable that tastes like a cross between garlic and onions, and it’s frequently used in vegetable and meat sautés, pesto, and other savory dishes requiring an extra umph. Few people know what it actually takes to get ramps out of the woods and into a wood-fired oven, however. To answer your most common ramp-related questions, we asked Kelly of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, New York. Below, she gives us the scoop.
GC: Where do ramps come from? Are they wild or cultivated?
Kelly: Ramps are foraged. We forage everything on 400 to 600 acres. Our farm is really rural and there are a lot of forests. Ramps grow in shady areas in high-sulfur soil, especially wet soil. They’re hard to cultivate because you have to get the soil exactly right. Timing and canopy coverage also plays a factor.
GC: That’s part of the mythology surrounding ramps– they’re illusive and very seasonal.
Kelly: Exactly. This year has been the longest ramp season in a while. It started March 26 and it’s still ongoing (as of May 12). Usually 6 weeks is a good season. The rain was good for ramps– it’s good to dig for them when they are wet, otherwise they break more easily.
GC: When harvesting ramps, do you just pull them out by the leaves?
Kelly: You have to dig them with a pitchfork and shovels. The white bulb part is under ground and the leaves are really long, so you dig out the bulbs.
GC: What’s the benefit of keeping the roots?
Kelly: There’s two theories about digging. One is to just cut, and don’t take the roots at all (which means you just sell the leaves). In doing that, people think that you are leaving the roots to grow back next year. In our case, we dig them. So in the center of the leaves, a flower will come up. It’s a spherical flower like an onion, and it drops seeds, which in turn creates more ramps next season.
This farm has been digging ramps for 25 years, and in those 25 years we’ve only had one patch that didn’t grow back. We’ll dig really hard in one area and then wait 3-5 years before going back.
GC: What’s the best way to use ramps?
Kelly: A lot of people pickle the bulbs and use the leaves to make pesto, because the leaves are like the garlic and the basil all in one. The leaves also get really sweet when you cook them, so I like to chop them up and cook them as is. The uncooked leaves are super pungent, but they cook sweet, and the older the leaf, the sweeter it will be.
GC: What brought you to this farm?
Kelly: Friends of mine moved to the farm to dig ramps, and they’re the one’s that got me into it. The owner of this farm gave them a treasure map, so to speak, identifying where the ramps are, and when they went and dug them they were so excited about it. They we’re like, “Dude– we found them!”