Patchwork: Notes from a backyard gardener
It is a dilemma. There’s not much to eat in my garden yet, except sorrel, which is just about ready to pick. We managed to crush the rhubarb when taking out a tree, so that is moot (we hope it is going to live to see another season). There’s a crowd of parsley that managed to winter over, but Judy Stevens tells me it will probably bolt and set seed early, so I have several pots of new parsley ready to go into the ground. Last summer’s Bronze Fennel, strangely, is also coming back, but it, too, will bolt early and set seed. And I don’t have the luxury of an asparagus bed.
John and Kate’s Spring Pasta with Ramps
Start by toasting 1/4 cup of pine nuts in a frying pan. Set aside to cool. Take 1/2 pound of ramps, wash them thoroughly, trimming off the roots and peeling off a thin outer skin if necessary. Bring 6–8 quarts of water to a boil in your pasta pot and plunge the ramps, leaves and all, in for 10 seconds to blanch them.
Remove, drain, chop them coarsely and put them into a food processor. Add 1/4 cup of good olive oil, and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the pasta water and pulse. Add the grated zest of one lemon, and pulse till just smooth.
Meanwhile, add spaghetti or linguine to the boiling water you used to blanch the ramps and cook till al dente (chewy). Reserve a little of the pasta water in a cup before you drain the pasta. Put the drained pasta, the pulsed ramp mixture, and ½ cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese back into the pasta pot and toss ingredients for a minute or two over a low flame, adding some of the reserved water if necessary so that the ramp mixture and cheese coat the pasta. Add the toasted pine nuts and a few twists of freshly ground black pepper.
For a variation, you can add lightly boiled asparagus to this dish and mix the tastes of spring.
Sustainable harvesting of ramps
Before harvesting ramps, check with your local extension service for best practices, and to see if harvesting is restricted in your area. Follow the rules.
Harvest no more than 10 percent of the patch (some folks say no more than 7 percent).
If you pluck the entire plant, slide your fingers down along the bulb, and pull gently, trying not to disturb the forest floor.
Another option is to remove some of the leaves from smaller plants, leaving the plant to grow.
The plants send up a flower stalk in July, after the leaves have died off. Do not disturb them.
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So, if I want to eat locally grown fresh food, that is to say, when it is in season, how do I handle the question of ramps?
They’re here. This is their season: fleeting, flavorable and indigenous. Two weeks ago, when John and I were biking on Cape Cod, where spring was slightly ahead of Middlebury, the local pub in Chatham was serving asparagus on a bed of lightly steamed ramps. This was my first taste of something very green that was tender, aromatic, pungent without being overwhelming, garlicky and oniony (if there is such a word) all at once. The flavors were not strong; they simply tasted fresh.
Bright green and fresh tastes awfully good right now.
But it is complicated. Ramps, otherwise known as Ramson, broad-leaf, or wild leeks, (Allium tricoccum), are wild onions native to North America. They grow from Georgia to Canada in moist places in deciduous woods. The base of the plant has a white bulb a little larger than a scallion, and the bright green leaves, unlike the leeks I grow in my garden, are broader and softer, something like those of lily of the valley. With its burgundy-tinged stem, both the ramp bulb and the leaves are edible, especially in early spring. And they are delicious. (But, beware — lily of the valley leaves are poisonous, as is the entire plant.)
Over the past two decades of a growing local food movement, ramps have become prized in upscale restaurants as the first fresh native food of the spring. In the mountains of Appalachia, where ramps have been harvested for 300 years, there are festivals and celebrations for the return of spring’s first edible green. The result? In some locations the local ramp population is being decimated. The price for the ramps in cities has gone as high as $12 a pound, which has attracted crowds of new foragers who scrape the woods clean. In Quebec, as of 1995, it is no longer legal to dig ramps; they are a protected species. In Maine and Rhode Island, ramps are a species of “special concern.”
So do I eat this first green? I wonder: is there an opportunity for someone to cultivate ramps?
I call a friend who knows where to find ramps. I simply want to see them in the wild. “I am going to blindfold you on the way there, unless you can keep a secret,” she says. I feel like we are heading off on a rare truffle hunt.
“We won’t pick them,” I say. “It will be an ethical ramp-age.”
“In Vermont you can pick only what you yourself will eat,” she mentions. “That’s the law.”
We spend several hours on a beautiful hike. The forest floor — moist and open beneath the budding deciduous trees, and carpeted in some places with banks of trout lilies — boasts not a single ramp.
So imagine my surprise when I walk into the co-op and find a bucket of freshly harvested ramps sitting in water, at $9.99 a pound in the front of the vegetable section. The sign reads “Local, Bristol.” I buy half a pound, enough for dinner for two. I assume that these have been harvested sustainably.
Meanwhile, my vegetable garden in the backyard is only just waking up. Folks are saying the spring is late. Actually, last year spring was early; this year it is more like it should be. While it is time to put things in the ground, we could still have a frost. The grass has greened up; some of my neighbors have mown their lawns for the first time. The raised beds are now repaired, and most of the first seeds I planted are up: peas, spinach, carrots, kale, fennel, garlic (very vigorous), onions, shallots and lettuces. In the herb garden, the mint is sending out exploratory tendrils under the mulch. The tarragon has returned, along with the lavender, sage, and some of the thyme. All my seed starts are outside hardening off. They are close to the house so that if a frost threatens, I can easily haul them back inside.
The season of the root cellar — carrots in sand, bags of dusty potatoes, and the remaining onions from last year’s harvest — is over. I crave the new season’s first greens, which, if they are something ephemeral and sensitive to growing conditions, like ramps, I might only eat sparingly. I look ahead to the brief season of fiddleheads (at least I know where to find them). I celebrate the asparagus from a friend’s patch. While the garden in the backyard emerges, I find that I am compelled to forage — just a little.