by Cathy Erway
What do you do when it’s off-season for apples, and the last crates from winter’s cold-storage have just been spent? Well, if your orchard is nestled in the mountains, you go hunting for ramps in the spring. That’s what Wilklow Orchards has been doing for the past few years, by popular demand. And though they sell beef and fruit products year-round at the Fort Greene, Borough Hall and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarkets, the hottest ticket right now from the farm – available for roughly a two-week window – are the bunches of leafy-green ramps they bring in.
Ramps may be just another member of the allium family, but they’ve gained a cult following bordering on fiendishness these days. There are ramp festivals now all over the country, and chefs at top restaurants all clamor to squeeze them into their menus in some way for one crazed week of spring. I heard a customer at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket complain that if she arrived too late in the morning, all the ramps would be gone, snatched up by the restaurants. And judging from the line of about a dozen customers at Wilklow Orchards’ Greenmarket stand at eight o’clock in the morning last Saturday, all waiting to buy bunches of precious ramps, they’d soon be gone for the day.
Why are we getting so “ramped” up over a wild onion? They’re not very sweet, nor very strong in taste. Similar to shallots or scallions, these onions have long shoots that can be used separately from their oniony bulbs. But they’re petite enough to be sauteed and eaten together. And with a zesty, garlicky flavor mellowing out to a chive-like sweetness at the shoot, they offer endless possibilities for the cook, and can be swapped in place of any onion in any dish for an unforgettable spring touch. Ramps are also unique from most farmed fruits and vegetables, in that they grow only in the wild and must be foraged by hand.
“You look for them in any wet areas, near brooks or swamps –that’s where they tend to grow,” said Becky Wilklow, while ringing up bunch after bunch of ramps. “Ramps are a little easier than finding fiddleheads, because they grow in a patch. So if you see one you’ll find a whole bunch of them. Then you have to move on and go looking for another.”
Becky explained that her family’s farm is fortunate to be situated in the mountains of Ulster County, New York, where ramps grow wild. A few years ago, a customer asked if they could sell them ramps from their land. The Wilklows figured they’d give it a try. Founded in 1855, Wilklow Orchards is an independent, family-operated farm spanning several generations. Its primary crop is apples, which include several varieties the Hudson Valley is known for, like Northern Spy and Jonagold. The Wilklows sell apple butter, syrups and preserves from the fruit year-round, as well as some other offerings from their farm, such as ground beef from their cattle. But the most lucrative crop this week for the Wilklows were most certainly those ramps.
I asked Becky about whether or not over-foraging was a concern, as recent articles have suggested. She acknowledged that she’s heard of these concerns in the south. But, “Up north, the first thing is that ramps grow on the sides of the mountains, so it’s pretty difficult to get up there and get around. The patches we forage for are nice for selling, but the most we bring to the market is ten boxes. And to sell them at the Greenmarket, you have to be an established farmer that meets a whole lot of requirements to participate” And, of course, they’re only around for about two weeks in spring.
Becky had a few suggestions for cooking with ramps: “You can sautee them and serve them with meat or anything. The leaves are the tricky part, though. If you’re cooking pasta or mashed potatoes, as soon as it’s done, cut the leaves and stir them in just until hot.” So, don’t cook the ramps, but merely warm them up enough to let their delicate flavor spread. “But my favorite way to cook them,” she added, “is with fish. Wrap a fish fillet with a ramp and give it a parmesan crust.”
I had to wrap my head around that suggestion for a moment, but it sounded like the most original thing I’d ever heard to do with them. I asked chef Jacques Gautier for another. Jacques is the owner and executive chef of Palo Santo, a Latin bistro in Park Slope. He’s well-known for his use of seasonal herbs and vegetables from the Greenmarket, and even grows some of his own on the roof of his restaurant. So, what did Jacques have to suggest for the fleeting spring ramp?
“Separate the greens from the bulbs and give them specialized treatment… the bulbs can be pickled or braised, but the greens are best lightly sauteed or chopped up and thrown into a salad raw.”
Pickled ramp bulbs and sauteed ramp tops are are on my table today. Enjoy!