Explore ramps, one of spring's wild treasures

Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Gnocchi with Ramps, Mushrooms and Shaved Parmesan is shown in this Monday April 6, 2009 photo. Ramps, a cross between garlic and onion, are a sure sign of spring and provide a nice garlicky kick to this Gnocchi with Ramps, Mushrooms and Shaved Parmesan. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)

In cold weather states along the eastern seaboard, the ramp harvest has long marked the start of spring.

Often described as wild leeks, ramps are a cross between garlic and onion and have a pungent spiciness. Traditionally, they have been used similar to spring onions and leeks. They also frequently are fried with potatoes or added to soup.

Wild ramps are common across the mid-Atlantic -- particularly in West Virginia and Tennessee -- and are cultivated in rocky terrain from South Carolina to just north of the Canadian border, and as far west as Missouri and Minnesota.

"It's a highly revered product at this time of year and all the top restaurants are using them," said Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. "I get a certain thrill of nationalism and patriotism being able to play with them."

In the early part of the season, which lasts six weeks, ramps resemble scallions with short purplish stalks and broad leaves similar to dandelion greens. They require only brief cooking. Armstrong combines them with other seasonal produce, including fava beans, morels and peas.

Gnocchi with ramps, mushrooms and shaved Parmesan is shown in this April 6 photo. Ramps, a cross between garlic and onion, are a sure sign of spring and provide a nice garlicky kick to this dish. (Larry Crowe ~ Associated Press)

Later in the season, ramps grow coarser, larger and need to be cooked longer to mask what can be a pungent taste, Armstrong said. He pickles these ramps with vinegar, sugar and pickling spices, which allows him to keep them on his menu until the end of May.

Though not yet common, ramps can be found in spring at farmers markets and many natural foods stores. Pick ramps that have crisp, green leaves, healthy stalks and shiny bulbs.

Sliced young ramps can be stuffed into a chicken for roasting, lightly sauteed in olive oil or baked into a gratin. They also can stand in for basil to make a delicious pesto.

In this recipe from Armstrong, ramps add a garlicky kick to gnocchi and are complemented by earthy mushrooms and robust Parmesan cheese. Be sure to drain the gnocchi well and let them dry for several minutes before proceeding with the recipe.

Gnocchi with Ramps, Mushrooms and Shaved Parmesan

1-pound package gnocchi

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 thinly sliced stalks of ramps

8 ounces crimini mushrooms, washed

Pinch red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons chicken broth

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

Salt, to taste

3 tablespoons shaved Parmesan cheese

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Cook the gnocchi according to package directions. Drain well and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, saute the garlic in the olive oil for about 2 minutes.

Add the ramps, mushrooms and red pepper flakes, then saute for another 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender.

Add the chicken broth. As soon as it bubbles, stir in the butter. Add the gnocchi and toss to heat through.

Add the thyme and salt, then divide between 4 serving bowls. Garnish with shaved Parmesan.

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