Monday, April 22, 2013

Embarrassment of ramps

Yesterday, I went hiking with my friend "Susie" (not real name) in one of my favorite places in the entire world. The temperatures have been wintry, especially in the morning, but signs of spring are out--specifically flowers. Some are flowers I have not seen since 2009, before I moved to Oregon, so it was all pretty exciting for me. More exciting than the facts warranted; how exciting is it really to see some Sanguinaria in the woods? It's not like it was twinleaf! (Jeffersonia diphylla, which is so rare in its native territory that it is often not labeled at botanical gardens, so as to not attract the attention of poachers. Yet in the Northwest, it grows tall and healthy and well-labeled in botanical gardens.)

We saw anemone...

and Hepatica (and for those of you who would complain about my use of Latin names, let me tell you what its common name is--liverwort. Is that prettier? No!)....

and columbine, just getting ready to bloom.

We both stopped at a patch of broad, flat monocot leaves, both of us silently calculating, trying to decipher what this plant was. Both of us at some point thought, "Solomon's seal? No...." I remember thinking, "Maybe that other one that's like Solomon's seal but isn't....what's it called?" (Later I realized I was thinking of false Solomon's seal.)

Suddenly, "Susie" exclaimed, "It's ramps!" She broke off a small piece of one and chewed on it. The air filled with an alliaceous smell, confirming this.

I don't know which of us first said, "But we shouldn't pick's not allowed." But we both kept saying it, only to find later, we both were thinking it would be okay and really not destroy the forest to pick a few, maybe ten, just enough to fill a skillet. But we both thought the other wouldn't break the rules of the park (which does actually have NO PICK rules), she because I am going to law school, I because she is a PhD scientist.

Especially as we continued to hike, and saw more and more ramps.

Yes, some of those pictures are of entire hillsides covered with ramps. Covered!

If you are thinking, "What the hell are ramps, and why is she so excited about them?", they are wild onion-like vegetables (technically, I've heard, wild leeks) which have a short season of availability, are available only at a few farmers' markets and grocery stores (such as Wegman's), and cost roughly a billion dollars. (Actually more like $32.99/lb, or so it was four years ago when I actually lived here full-time, but it may have changed since then. Also, it's worth noting that you don't need to buy anything close to a pound to have enough for a few meals. So it's really not going to set you back that much. I used to spend maybe $6 on ramps per grocery store trip, and I'd still have enough that I needed to make and freeze pesto.) They are delicious and worth every penny.

I tried to locate the ramp pesto recipe I used in 2009, but I can't. All I remember is that it was (as stated earlier) like any other pesto recipe, with no greens besides ramps, possibly some added garlic, and the nuts were not pine nuts, not walnuts, but pecans. This is worth noting; pecans are the perfect complement to ramps, in my opinion. Should you acquire ramps for the first time, you may be overwhelmed by the panoply of complex Internet recipes featuring ramps. Such as halibut with ramp pesto, preserved lemon, and oyster mushrooms. NO. Don't make yourself crazy. The best way to eat ramps is a simple preparation that highlights and does not mask the ramps themselves. My favorite way to eat ramps is to simply clean them (wash off dirt, chop off the very bottom with roots, remove any leaves that look very obviously wilted or dirty), sautee them in a hot skillet with butter, and add some salt and pepper and chopped pecans either toasted or cooked in the same hot butter remaining in the pan after you've removed the ramps. Add a poached egg and a baguette for a complete meal. Another preparation common in my former NJ apartments was ramp pizza - white pizza made with Trader Joe's pizza dough and ricotta and the Holy Trinity of Cheeses (Parmesan, Asiago, Romano). Add blanched fiddleheads for the ultimate snooty spring seasonal meal (and no one needs to know the dough is not homemade, but Trader Joe's.) I can't find the ramp pesto recipe, but it was basically like any pesto recipe, with pecans, olive oil, ramps and no other green, maybe garlic, and no cheese if you are going to freeze it. Honestly, it doesn't need cheese. This I would just eat with crackers. Another good resource is here, and it is from 2009, so I must have used it then, but I do not recall trying any of the recipes for things like risotto.

Here are some more pictures from our hike yesterday.

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