A bed of ramps. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

Ramps: Eagerly anticipated (and delicious) signs of spring

Today is cold and rainy, but yesterday was cold but sunny, so I set out with Lily into the forest to look for signs of spring.

Though the treetops were still black and bare and the forest floor cluttered with winter debris, rising through the crackle of brittle brown leaves was Native Americans’ first eagerly anticipated vernal shoot: the brilliant green, spatulate, thrusting leaves of the ramp.

Ramps, wild onions, Allium tricoccum, grow in spreading beds of many members, their spear-like leaves often sporting a necklace of impaled brown oak leaf as they poke willy-nilly through whatever obstacles nature puts in their way.

Native peoples celebrated the arrival of ramps with festivals. Some ramp festivals continue in Appalachia to this day. For early Americans, their eager ramp consumption relieved the sores and tiredness of months of vitamin C-depleted winter.

I am respectful of ramps. They are alliums, with bulbs below and that beautiful leaf cluster atop. If pulled out by the bulb, that particular ramp individual will never return. Pull out too many and you lose the bed. So I pull sparingly, never more than one in five, as the guidebook on foraging suggests, and more frequently I opt to cut off only the leaves cleanly with my knife.

The day’s ramp harvest. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

The sun seems to shine clear through to my heart. The earliest signs of spring will do that to you.

I feel the smoothness of my knife’s blade as it performs its function for the first time since autumn. My bag, the ubiquitous clean doggie-poop bag that is always in a pocket of every jacket, fills up quickly as I return to this and that well-remembered ramp bed in the forest.

Back home, I empty the bag of its treasure onto the bed where Eli is quietly and comfortably reading. He is delighted, knowing the bright garlic-onion taste and the ephemeral freshness of these small plants.

I wash the bulbs of earth and cut off the stringy tentacles that anchor them so deeply in the soil, and then slice the bulbs into miniature coins and the leaves into thin strips.

Sautéed first in my best olive oil, salted and peppered, I cover them in beaten eggs. As they cook, I gently lift the edges, allowing the golden egg liquid to run beneath the browning underside, patched and speckled with bits of succulent bulbs and leaves. Then I awkwardly flip the omelet over and carry it to the table, bringing the tender hopefulness of spring into our bellies, our cells and our very bones.

Spring bounty!  My recipe for ramp pesto.

  1. Take a walk in the woods.
  2. Pick ramp leaves, leaving the bulbs to keep the ramp families going unto the next generation. I pick a pretty good bagful.
  3. Back home, boil a big pot of water.
  4. Parboil the ramp leaves in batches for 30 seconds.
  5. Remove with tongs and plunge into a bowl of ice water.
  6. Drain in a colander and then squeeze in a towel to get the water out (the ramps, not you.)
  7. Chop them up a bit and pulse in a food processor with maybe half a cup each of olive oil, roasted almonds and grated cheese (or nutritional yeast to make it vegan). Put in some salt and pepper and lemon juice and then taste. Add a little here and a little there of the ingredients until it seems just right.
  8. Enjoy on toast, crackers, veggies, fish, whatever.