Ramping Up for Spring

After being confined indoors or adventuring through the frozen Door County landscape for the last five months, my heart goes pitter-patter with the first signs of spring. 

The lake breeze shifts and starts blowing the warmer air in from the south. Certain spring ephemerals start to peek through the last traces of winter, the bits of snow and ice leaving behind the packed-down leaf layer on the forest floor. The trees begin to bud; the sandhill cranes return; there are signs of new life everywhere. Take a deep breath in, and rejoice in the beginning of the warm months. 

For me, the shift of seasons comes with an excitement for foraging and tramping through the forest. Door County is a perfect place to allow yourself time and space to get lost in the hunt for things of earthy, delectable delight. The first wild deliciousness you will find in early spring are ramps, also known as wild onion, wild garlic or wild leeks. 

Get out for that early spring hike – it’s good for your soul! When you do, the ramp greens are the first things you’ll see peeking up from the rich soil found in the Door County forest floors. Inhale deeply, and you’ll smell a hint of onion in the air. For me, this moment is the opportunity to close my eyes, take in the change of season and give thanks for all the new life in the world.

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Ramps are native to our climate and were a prevalent food source for both Native Americans and early settlers.

When harvesting anything from the wild, including ramps, it’s important to put on your sustainable hat. Although ramps are a perennial (bulb) and will reproduce year to year, don’t take a full clump from any given place in the forest. Instead, gather a few from here and a few from there – it won’t take long to obtain the quantity you’re looking for.

The entire plant is edible, both the bulb and the leaves. The flavor is somewhere between a very strong onion and raw garlic, so a little goes a long way. The longer ramps are in the ground, the stronger they get. I try to get out early in the season to harvest them when they’re young and tender. You’ll know it’s time to harvest when you see the forest floor covered in clumps of broad, green leaves, four to six inches long. 

When harvesting, take a gardening hand tool such as a small shovel or trowel, gardening gloves, and a canvas or netted bag to carry out your haul. The tool is used simply to loosen the soil around the bulbs. Dig deep enough so you can gently wiggle a few out at a time. 

Cleaning ramps can be a bit tedious because soil can get trapped within the layers. I start by giving them a good wash in cold water using my hands to remove as much soil as possible, then cut off the roots and remove the white bulbs from the greens. The next step is to give the greens a whirl in a salad spinner. Then remove whatever soil still remains, and spin extra long to remove as much water as you can. 

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Store the bulbs in the refrigerator between layers of paper towels inside a plastic bag to keep them fresh. (They’re best if used within four to five days of harvest.) Store the greens in a separate plastic bag with a paper towel folded up at the bottom of the bag to absorb any excess water. They’ll keep in your refrigerator for about a week.

The following recipes allow you to use the greens for ramp pesto and ramp butter, and the bulbs for pickled ramps. 

Ramp Butter

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Have a food processor at the ready.

• 1 lb unsalted butter, room temperature
• Handful of ramp greens, chopped
• 1-2 cloves garlic, diced
• Pinch or two of salt

Place all ingredients in a food processor, and whirl until well blended. Remove from the processor, roll in wax paper and place in the freezer. You will get two or three rolls, depending on how thickly you roll.

Pull out of freezer 30 minutes before using. Remove the wax paper and slice into pinwheels – the presentation will surely impress! Serve with warm bread or substitute in all savory recipes calling for butter.

Ramp Pesto

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Have a food processor at the ready.

• 1 lb ramp greens, chopped
• 1 cup olive oil (and more if necessary)
• 2 cups nuts of choice: raw pine nuts, pecans, walnuts or almonds
• ½ cup Parmesan or other hard cheese of your choice, grated (optional)
• 1 Tbsp lemon juice (juice of ½ lemon)
• Salt and pepper to taste

Add the ramp greens, olive oil and nuts to the food processor. Pulse until all is well blended. (Depending on the size of your food processor, you may want to add just a bit at a time or process in batches.) When blended, add the cheese (optional), lemon juice, salt and pepper (to taste) and whirl again. 

This pesto is great on eggs, pasta, fish or chicken. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or frozen in ice cube trays. This freezing method allows you to portion out the pesto in easy-to-use quantities. Store the frozen cubes in a freezer bag.

Pickled Ramps

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

You’ll need four pint jars for this recipe.

These are refrigerator pickles, which means they are not sealed properly to be stored in the pantry. However, you can store them in your refrigerator for a month or two. They make awesome additions to a spring-themed charcuterie board, your favorite grilled sandwiches or a Bloody Mary. I love having these available to add a pop of flavor to just about anything savory.

Step 1: Blanch the bulbs 

• 4 cups salted water
• 1 lb ramp bulbs
• Bowl of ice water

Bring the water to a boil; then drop the ramp bulbs into the water, boil for approximately 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, quickly remove the ramps from the boiling water and submerge them in a bowl of ice water. Remove when cool to the touch, approximately 1 minute. Place them off to the side.

Step 2: Pack the Jars

• Fresh oregano and fresh thyme for Mediterranean style or fresh cilantro for curry style
• 4 small serrano or jalapeño peppers (optional)

Pack the ramps tightly into the four pint jars. Add fresh oregano and thyme to the jars when choosing the Mediterranean-style brine, or fresh cilantro when choosing the curry-style brine. To add spice to either recipe, add a small serrano or jalapeño pepper to each jar.

Step 3: Make the Brine 

There are two options for the brine – pick your favorite! Both recipes make enough brine for one pound of ramps packed into four pint jars.

Mediterranean-style Pickled Ramps

• 3 cups water
• 1½ cups red wine vinegar
• ½ cup sugar
• ¼ tsp mustard seeds
• ¼ tsp black peppercorns
• ¼ tsp caraway seeds
• ¼ tsp allspice seeds
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 Tbsp pickling salt or kosher salt

Curry-style Pickled Ramps

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

• 3 cups water
• 1½ cups apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
• ½ cup sugar
• ¼ tsp mustard seeds
• ¼ tsp coriander seeds
• ¼ tsp allspice seeds
• 1 small cinnamon stick
• ½ tsp turmeric
• ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
• 1 Tbsp pickling salt or kosher salt

In a small stockpot, bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for approximately 30 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld. 

While the brine is still hot, carefully pour enough brine into each jar to cover the ramps. Put a clean lid on each jar and quickly turn them upside down to cool. Once the jars have cooled, place them in the refrigerator. Let them sit for a minimum of a week before you dig in.