In Chef Tony Maws’ kitchen, spring arrives each year with pungency, borne on the ripe scent of wild ramps. The first delivery of these onion-like odorous greens signals that ramps have made their seasonal rebound, popping their leafy heads up through local forest leaf litter as they do each spring. In his restaurant, Maws readies himself for the vegetable’s brief, bold visitation.
The chef-owner of Craigie On Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Maws learned about cooking with ramps in various restaurants, but says, "I remember walking by the woods and seeing them growing wild when I was a kid.” Now he anticipates the arrival of ramps. “The short season is a good reminder for us to focus on them strongly. We pickle many pounds of ramps."
Also known as wild leeks, ramps are members of the same root family as garlic, scallions, and onions. With sword-shaped leafy green stalks emerging from a small white bulb, ramps look like the missing link between scallions and leeks, yet their bold flavor and pronounced aroma is most often described as that of a garlicky onion.
Fresh supplies of the wild vegetable generally depend on foragers who know where clusters of the ramps reappear each year. Native to eastern North American mountains, wild ramps are found in moist, deciduous (non-evergreen) forests as far north as Canada, as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee, and as far west as Missouri and Minnesota. Supplies are generally ready for picking just as the first signs of spring arrive. But the season is short, for as soon as trees turn leafy green and block the sun, the ramps retreat until the following year.
Restaurant demand for ramps has increased so much over the past few years that major distributors, like Melissa's World Variety Produce, headquartered in Los Angeles, and Baldor Foods, a large Northeastern food distributor, stock ample supplies to keep chefs in ramp rapture during the brief season.
Scott Conant, executive chef and owner of Scarpetta restaurants in six cities nationwide, appreciates what ramps can do for certain dishes. They boost a dish's "flavor round-up,” Conant says. “But ramps also add a flavor backdrop that stays with the palate. It's almost a chive-like assertiveness that is comforting to the taste bud.” Conant says he started using ramps after eating them in a restaurant for the first time. "I ordered them the next day to use in my own kitchens. That was about 12 years ago, and I still love incorporating them into new recipes."
His predominant source of the product comes from local farmers who forage for them.Those who harvest wild ramps usually dig small clumps of them out of larger patches of the plants. This practice helps to ensure that enough individual ramps remain to form new patches with their seeds and roots. (Ramps reproduce from seeds and rhizomes, root-like stems that run underground.)
To extend the supply of ramp flavor for his restaurant use, Maws pickles ramps in a mixture of shallots, parsley, olive oil, plus his own house-cured anchovies, and a little vinegar. The result is a sauce typically used for dipping. The chef also cans the mixture for a longer shelf life. In dishes like his Pate of Quatre Foies, Chef Maws uses fresh ramps for both seasoning and garnish whenever available.
Robert Schueller, director of communications for Melissa's World Variety Produce, notes that despite the brief supply of ramps, chefs can freeze the vegetable with very good results. "Either raw or blanched for a minute, ramps freeze extremely well and for a long time."