By ALICE FEIRING
Published: April 14, 2006
THE first time I hunted for ramps with dinner in mind, upstate New York was barely emerging from an Arctic-like winter. It was late April 1996, and the ground was still sprinkled with snow. It seemed as if Delaware County, where I inhabited a friend's house, would never see spring.
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Ramps that have been cleaned and are ready for sauteing.
The elongated leaves of the ramp, or wild leek, found in early spring on the forest floor.
I walked into the forest with little hope. But suddenly I saw a green carpet a multitude of ramps (or wild leeks, as they are also known), looking perkily optimistic with their wild, floppy leaves. I tore off a fat bouquet. I ran from the forest, waved them overhead and yelled: "Ramps! Ramps!"
Armed with a shovel, I returned to the forest and got to work. Gently, I lifted them by their complex roots, which knit and curl like a web of intestines. Back in the house, I set to cleaning their mud-encased membranes in cold water. They must be stripped of that protective sac it's like husking an ear of corn down to the milky white, purple-edged bulb. Every bit that is left of the ramp, from bulb to leaf, is edible.
This cleaning is almost as messy as gutting a fish, but it is sensual and oddly satisfying. (If you buy them in the Greenmarket, the cleaning has been done for you.) I arranged them in bouquets around the house until I was ready to cook them.
Ramps Allium tricoccum are prized for their white bulbs and their tender greens. They burst through the earth in early spring with majestic greenness. They can be foraged for about five weeks in April and May.
Years earlier, after watching Greek peasant women comb the hills of Crete picking wild greens, I returned to the States and, emboldened by their example, began looking down at the ground in search of supper. My efforts were fruitful. The hills surrounding my friend's house, in Walton, N.Y., had offered endless free food from June through November in addition to fruit, from strawberries to tiny plums, there was purslane, watercress and wild mint.
But until the year before that successful ramp hunt, I had never considered ramps. The day they first entered my consciousness I was on a spring walk in that munificent forest. That year, the spring was especially warm. Blue and yellow trout lilies bloomed. I entered a part of the woods resplendent with greens I'd never seen before shooting out from the bed of matted dead leaves. What on earth were they?
This was before ramps were fashionable. I knew that they were celebrated in West Virginia, and other parts of the Appalachian region, and that they were perhaps similar to the rampion picked by Rapunzel, but I was far from the mountains of West Virginia, and I was no Rapunzel.
The something I'd found looked suspiciously like the poisonous lily of the valley, whose leaves are aroma-free. I put a leaf close to my nose and breathed in an earthy, oniony smell, one topped off by a high note of white truffle. The oils clinging to my nose and fingers were muskily compelling.
MY hypervigilant boyfriend barred ramps from the dinner table until we could establish their safety. So I opened Steve Brill's trusty book "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places," and learned that nothing smelling like onion or garlic is poisonous. The next spring, I was ready for them.
Ramps, which are rich in vitamin C, were for many years the first potently nutritious edibles to rise up after the winter dearth. The Indians made tonics; Southerners cured scurvy with them, built festivals around them and foraged them so thoroughly they nearly disappeared. Meanwhile, in the Catskills, where they also grew in abundance, the locals forgot about them.
Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farms in Roscoe, N.Y., had passed them by for decades (as I had, and as had his neighbors), until a Southern-born employee grabbed him by the elbow and whispered, "Come here, I'll show you something that saved my life."
Mr. Bishop took the ramps to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan in 1986, but it wasn't until the late 90's that ramps really took off, and even then it was with city folk rather than country folk. As chefs fell in love with them, a new star was born.
Ramps are transformative, even magical. Once, as I was carting pounds of them back to the city, their intense garlic smell turned floral, almost like the scent of lilacs.
In many ways, ramps present an exquisite balance between pain and pleasure. They are delicious and addictive but beware, they are also highly cathartic. I love to prepare them simply: sauted with extra-virgin olive oil and a teeny crush of sea salt. A potato gratin with the sauted ramps and a hefty shredding of aged strong Cheddar is another happy marriage of flavor.
My favorite wine pairing is one that would perplex a white-wine-with-ramp sommelier a beautiful northern Rhone red made from syrah grapes, like a St. Joseph.
My friend has reclaimed her house, but she has given me visitation rights at ramp time. So, with the early ramp season upon us, I and two friends, who have taken to the ritual like nymphs to woods, will soon sit on the damp earth. We'll go ramping until blisters swell on our palms. We'll clean and cook them. We'll eat and eat. And once again, we'll drink St. Joe.
Alice's Ramp and Potato Gratin
½ pound ramps
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces Gruyre or extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes (or potato of choice) of similar size
2 cups half-and-half
3 sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional: red pepper flakes.
(Note: You can never use too many ramps or too much cheese in this dish. Adjust up or down depending on taste.)
1. Saut ramps in olive oil until wilted, with a dash of pepper flakes if you like a kick. Combine the cheeses and reserve a cup for the topping.
2. Wash the potatoes, peel if you like (I don't) and slice them into very thin rounds, using a mandoline or a sharp knife.
3. Oil a 9-by-12-inch heavy, shallow baking dish, preferably earthenware or cast enamel.
4. In a small saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a simmer with thyme and add, generously, salt and pepper. Remove the thyme and set the mixture aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
6. Arrange about one-fourth of the potatoes in a layer on the bottom of the dish. Season as you go. Evenly layer in about one-third of the ramps, sprinkling cheese and a few spoons of half-and-half; repeat twice, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pour the rest of the half-and-half over the potato mixture, allowing the liquid to hit just below the top layer of potatoes. Top off with the remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake until the potatoes feel tender, about one hour.
7. Raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees, remove the foil and bake until the top begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.