It’s the end of April and that means it’s that strange time of year where everyone is ready to eat spring food but nothing is close to harvesting. After this year’s particularly long and harsh winter, our spring crops still have a month to go before we will have any yield for our farm stand. This is always a concerning time of year for restaurants, when guests show up for dinner in sundresses and short sleeves, tired of celery root and beets, yearning for the sweet taste of peas, young carrots, and fava beans. In most cases, what “spring crops” are available at this time in the store, come from warmer climates like California, Florida, and Mexico.
Yikes! I won’t point the finger of morality at you, I’m guilty of impatience with seasonal vegetable locality. But it’s a new season, a new year, and we’re all trying to do better, right?
Luckily, you don’t have to wait until June to start tasting the bright local flavors of spring. In our area, ramps are in full effect!
Yesterday we harvested the first big, beautiful bulbs of the season from our ramp bed. Some people call ramps “wild leeks”, “spring onions”, or “wild garlic”. They are normally found along creeks or streams, sprouting out of the hillsides under hardwood trees such as birch, maple, poplar, hickory, and/or oak. They thrive in areas that receive ample sunshine and have rich, moist, well-drained soil. The more fallen leaves and organic debris, the better!
In recent years, the demand for wild ramps has grown so much that fields of the leaves have been decimated to small patches. Ramps are bourgeoisie, trendy, so-hot-right-now. Because of this, if you’re lucky enough to find a patch, keep it a secret!! Over picking can cause you to lose your crop after just a few seasons. Each plant sprouts and grows long, lily of the valley type leaves in March and April. By the summertime, the leaves die off and a single stalk rises, holding a flower that will eventually drop seed in the surrounding area, generating more plants for the following year.
The entire plant is edible, which I love, and the fact that they are growing in my backyard for free, minus a little elbow grease and creeping through a maze of devil’s walking sticks, makes me love them even more.
You don’t have a ramp patch on your property? Or perhaps you live in the city where finding a patch of grass that your neighbor’s dog hasn’t already christened is nearly impossible? Stores and farmers markets are carrying them these days. I’ve seen them at Whole Foods and at the Headhouse Farmer’s market in Philadelphia. If you can buy them from a farmer, do it! The fact that they went out to find and harvest these little gems in between weeding, tilling, transplanting, and seeding will make your purchase even sweeter.
Last night we attended a dinner in West Chester, PA, held in a beautiful restored barn by friends of the Natural Lands Trust. The evening featured a forage inspired supper and a conversation with Tama Matsuoka Wong, co-author of the James Beard Award-nominated, “Foraged Flavor”. Tama spoke about finding hidden gems in our very own backyards. Sometimes, aggressive weeds that we wage war upon are actually special delicacies in other cultures. For example, Daylilies, chickweed, or devil’s walking stick. More impressive, she has organized a collection of refreshing, easy recipes for home cooks to use, as well as a guide and references on where to forage on your own.
You can find Tama’s book for purchase on her website as well as additional information on her company, meadows+more.