It’s a bit later in the season than recent years, but ramps are back. Foragers are digging up the unique spring alliums from newly-thawed forest ground and delivering them to chefs who’ve tweeted or texted their desire. For the next few weeks, if not months, expect to see ramp dishes popping up all over.
Chefs geek out over other early spring vegetables like fiddlehead ferns, morels, fava beans, asparagus and peas, but the mania ramps incite seems to reach the highest pitch. Is the hype deserved?
“People don’t make a big deal when tomatoes come out,” chef Chip Roman points out. “I think a lot of the psychology is about winter finally being over. By the time zucchini shows up you don’t have that same yearning to be done with the cold.”
Roman pulls his own ramps from the land near Mica in Chestnut Hill and Blackfish in Conshohocken. “We go out with the whole staff, it’s a bonding trip, we make an outing out of it,” he says, noting that he keeps his ramp foraging spots secret so they don’t get totally ravaged. “Yes, I love them. Everyone loves ramps. But I’ve been in it too long to get hyped up about it - it’s a good excuse to get out of my house.”
Chef Brad Spence first fell for ramps when at college in West Virginia. “This was 10-15 years ago, before they got popular with the chefs,” he remembers, “There’s a whole festival dedicated to ramps down there.”
How did ramps get so popular? “Someone probably wrote an article,” he jokes. Outside of West Virginia, Spence first remembers working with ramps in the kitchens of Mario Batalli, where he came to appreciate their intense but gentle taste. At Amis, look for ramps in pestos, raviolis, and one of Spence’s favorite dishes of all time: simple spaghetti with ramps, pecorino and olive oil.
Part of the appeal of ramps that they grow wild. “If you tried to cultivate them, you’d probably lose that special flavor, like farmed fish versus wild fish,” he speculates. In fact, ramps are a protected species in Canada, where they don’t grow as easily, and restaurants are forbidden from buying them.
“It’s like, against the rules or something to grow ramps on a farm!” says George Sabatino, who says they are something he looks forward to religiously every year. “I’m totally not that way with a lot other chef stuff,” he says, adding that he hopes to have his first solo venture, Aldine, open in time to get ramps on the menu. He describes the flavors as “spring onions on crack,” and is planning to get his hands on as many as possible. Sabatino will use them fresh but also pickle the bulbs and turn the tops into butter to use later in the spring and throughout the year.
The season does seem to last longer than it did a decade ago, to the detriment of the vegetable’s signature flavor, notes Spence. “They used to be around for two weeks, now it’s more like two months! Foragers can make good money on them, so it’s understandable to push it, but ramps always the best right at the beginning.”
“You can pickle them to capture and save that great flavor, but ramps are really only nice when they are small and tender,” says chef Adam Zensinger of Lemon Hill. He is a big fan of morels, which come out slightly later in the season and are notoriously difficult to clean but reward with a delicate flavor that tastes “like the forest floor.”
“I get more excited about those big, giant white asparagus,” Roman tells us. “You can compose a whole dish around just one stalk, and they go really well with fish.”
Peas hold the most magic for Sabatino, who says he can’t pass by them in the market without buying them. “For what it’s worth, most of these things you can get all times of the year, but chefs like to stick to seasonality. If someone did grow ramps year round, they would lose their awesomeness,” he says.
Takeaway? Ramps probably *are* good enough to deserve the hype - but only early in the season. What that means, of course, is you should start to seek them out. Right. About. Now.