Ramps are the harbinger of spring for more than a few of us.
Ramps, or wild leeks, are some of the first things to pop out of the ground, sometimes even when there is a light blanket of snow in the woods. And after this winter, they’re welcome sign that despite cold and lasting frozen precipitation, something will grow again.
They are in the allium (onion) family and share all the characteristics of that group. But ramps are different from those cultivated varieties in their wild smell and tender leaves. They have a garlic-y pungency that is hard to describe or forget.
I had never worked with ramps before cooking in Chicago — a town whose name is derived from the Native American word for ramp. My chef and I walked in to “Rampfest” an annual fundraiser celebrating these foraged darlings; he looked at me and said, “Whoa, it smells like ramps in here.”
From that time forward that smell has been unmistakable and makes me so happy.
Often ramps are available at the market or grocery store. To harvest them yourself, you’ll need a shovel and permission to go walking in the woods or other wild spaces. Search for long, ovular green leaves that look remarkably like Lily of the Valley. They often grow in crowns.
Push straight down next to the crown with a shovel and gently wiggle the plants out of the ground exposing their tender pink stalks — ideally lifting them from below their root system. With the crown lifted bend down and pull no more than half of the ramps from the group.
The plant’s short growing season — first thaw until the trees leaf-out — means it takes them an average of seven years to regenerate. They propagate in two ways. One, at the end of their season they will send up a pink flower that will drop seeds. Two, like other alliums, they will divide along their bulbs and regrow.