On the Rampage: Cooking with Wild Leeks


Holly A. Heyser

Click here for Hank's homemade ramp pasta recipe, here for his ramp pesto recipe, and here for a method for ramps agrodolce, shown above.

I have a love-hate relationship with wild leeks, which most of you know as ramps. It is the same feeling I get when I actually like a popular song; I felt this way when Madonna's "Vogue" came out in 1990 (and no, I am not gay). It's just that I am genetically predisposed to disliking trendy things ... but I really do like eating ramps.

I have especially enjoyed eating them since moving to California, where wild onions seem to be scarce. I've heard there are more than 20 varieties of wild onion or garlic living here, but I have yet to find any of them—to my eternal shame. Wild onion was one of the first things I foraged for when I was a boy, and finding them has been a harbinger of spring for me ever since.

Ramps did not grow in my neighborhood in New Jersey, but they were always in the Watchung hills nearby, and sometimes my friends and I would find the whole understory of the forest covered by them. My little mental name for ramps was "forest-onion-lily," which is pretty much what they are.

I never heard the term "ramps" until I moved to Virginia as an adult, although my ex-wife knew about them from growing up in Wisconsin. Now ramps are all the rage, and have been for a couple of years now.

Far away from the Kingdom of the Ramp, which ends at the Great Plains in Minnesota, I decided I needed to play with ramps again. This time, I'd cook them. As a boy I just picked and ate them raw; my breath must have been pretty special then ...

Since flying back east was out of the question (I'll be doing enough travel in the coming weeks, but more on that later), I needed to buy ramps. Pretty much the only online purveyor of fresh ramps I know of is Earthy Delights, who were, er, delighted to send me some ramps to mess around with. They sent me something like four pounds of fresh skinny young ramps.

What the hell am I going to do with that many ramps?

I still don't know. I'd like to pickle them, but it's better to have large ramps for that and those come later. So for now, here's what I've done:

• Sautéed them with olive oil and served them with a squeeze of lemon and fleur de sel and pepper. Simple and delicious.
    • Chopped them up and tossed them into an omelet.
    • Sautéed them in a sweet-and-sour sauce, for ramps agrodolce.
    • Made a ramp pesto.
    • And, most esoterically, pulverized the pretty green ramp leaves and added them to a dough to make a ramp pasta.

I still have enough to make several other ramp dishes, but our annual Big Fat Greek Party is Saturday and nearly 100 people are planning to show up—so maybe I'll just grill the rest of the ramps and serve them with tzatziki.

All of these dishes were good, but the most ramp-tastic was the ramp pasta with ramp pesto. It's green on green, and damn good if I do say so myself.

Lots of people make ramp pesto, mostly as versions of the typical recipe, with basil and pine nuts. My ramp pesto has a Sicilian flair, with ramps taking the place of the garlic, along with fresh oregano, almonds as the nut, and pecorino as the cheese.

Lemme tell ya, making the ramp pasta was not easy. Ramp leaves may be flavorful and pretty, but they are also fibrous and loaded with moisture. And fibrous is no bueno when making a green pasta—the fibers compromise the dough's strength. This means you cannot make very thin noodles, and that I had to knead the damn thing for a full 10 minutes. I have stronger arms now, thank you.

I wanted to go narrower than pappardelle with it, but the fibers broke the noodles when I tried to make tagliatelle. So pappardelle it was. Nothing wrong with wide noodles, I say. A moment in boiling water, a hit of lemon juice and a dollop of the pesto, and this was about as ramp-y as I could get.

What do I think after this whirlwind fling with my childhood friend, the ramp? I think pretty much the same thing I did then: it's a good spring onion, and I like that it has a mild garlic flavor to go with its spring onion side. I will happily use them every spring.

But let's get real here. Have you seen the heights people are soaring to when they describe the flavor of ramps? Please. I mean, I know they are milder than a lot of other wild onions, but we need to get a grip and treat the ramp as what it is: an excellent, wild spring onion. It's not the culinary messiah, people. It's an onion.

And contrary to popular belief, it is apparently not uncultivatable. I plan on sticking a few of my extra ramps in the garden to see what happens. I am betting they will grow the way all my other onions do, only in the shade.

Recipe: Homemade Ramp Pasta
Recipe: Ramp Pesto
Recipe: Ramps Agrodolce

More ramp recipes:

Linguine with ramps, morels, sunchokes, and spinach, from A Good Appetite
    • Another ramp and egg dish, from Healthy Green Kitchen
    • Ramps in shallot butter, from Not Derby Pie