Monthly Archives: April 2011

Ramps and Revelation – Preserving The Harvest With Ramp Pesto

Ramp pesto served over spaghetti with a French Breakfast radish garnish.

Maybe it is just because I have been in ramp heaven throughout the past three weeks, finding vast caches of wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) on our forays and loving ever minute of it. Or perhaps it is because I grew up in a household where every meal began with a head of garlic, and the unmistakably garlicky scent and flavor of the ramp satisfies my life-long love affair with this pungent allium. The bottom line is that I just can’t get enough of ramps, and these days they seem to be showing up on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. From lightly sautéing ramps in a tad of olive oil, salt and pepper, to featuring them in omelets, soufflés, quiches, sandwiches, risottos, burritos, soups, and pasta dishes, it is beginning to seem that there isn’t anything that doesn’t go well with ramps.

Ramps from a recent harvest.

Throughout the past two weeks, Ari and I have been obsessively eating and discussing ramps, excitedly proclaiming all of the wonderful things we could make with them. The list seems to be growing. While my adoration of ramps may border on excessive, I am not the only one. When combing through the NY Times a few weeks ago, I noticed that two restaurants would be featuring four and seven-course fixed price ramp feasts (in one case, including ramp martinis and wine).

Then, I was delighted to read an article about ramps in this season’s issue of Edible Fingerlakes and view a photograph of a wild leek aficionado proudly displaying his ramp tattoo. While I don’t feel called to express my love for these tender greens through body art, I can relate to his motive.

Alas, ramp season will not last forever and these savory plants, now seemingly everywhere in Ithaca’s forests, will soon wither as the trees leaf out. How can I prolong my enjoyment of this spring ephemeral? Making and freezing ramp pesto has been one of my favorite ways to preserve this wild edible so that it can be enjoyed in future months. Not surprisingly, this is my favorite alternative to basil pesto!

Makes about 1½ cups pesto, or a generous 8oz.

Ingredients:

  • 3 oz. or 2 cups ramp leaves, packed
  • ½ cup lightly toasted pine nuts (pecans or walnuts are a tasty substitute)
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Prepare the ramps by removing and setting aside the bulbs if they are still attached (see our recent article, The Ramp Ritual, for a discussion of harvesting technique). Blanch 50-100% of ramps for 30 seconds, depending on desired potency of garlic flavor, and then immediately place under cold water. Then, remove the ramps from the water and thoroughly drain. In the past I have used 100% raw ramps, but not without suffering from dragon breath and heartburn!

Pulse all ingredients, except the olive oil, in a food processor to form a coarse paste. Then, add the olive oil and pulse briefly. Serve with pasta, on pizza, in a sandwich, or as a garnish on meat or seafood. Mangia!

Our friend, Victoria, harvests ramps on a recent foray (left). Ramp pesto ready for the freezer (right).

Morel Madness

A yellow morel from last spring

Today, like yesterday and the day before, I spent two long, desperate hours stalking morels (Morchella sp.), the first gourmet mushrooms to emerge each spring in most of North America. I have not yet heard any reports of morel sightings in Ithaca this spring, but the mere fact that morels theoretically could be out keeps me on the prowl. Mushroom hunters to the south and west of Ithaca have been luckier, filling their baskets since early April according to this 2011 sightings map from Morel Hunters, whose slogan is, “Where the hunters gather.” Morels have deservedly acquired a singular reputation amongst foragers and gourmands alike; there are millions of people throughout their wide American range who confidently harvest morels every spring, yet cannot identify any other local mushrooms.

Just don’t go around asking random mushroom hunters about the location of their morel patches. “No, I won’t tell you where they were found. Of course not! Morel spots are private,” wrote Cornell University mycologist Kathie Hodge – who holds an annual first morel contest in Ithaca – in an email to the campus mushroom listserv last spring. What makes morels drive people so crazy that many a friendship has been lost over them, and more than a few lives have been lost in their pursuit?

A half-free morel from last spring

Morels have a rich, woodsy, and gamey flavor, but in taste alone it is debatable whether they outshine porcinis, hen of the woods, or the more obscure yet divine black trumpet. Partly, morels have developed such a following because they are the first delicacy provided by the forest after the long, mushroom-less winter. It doesn’t hurt that all morels, from the black to the yellow to the early and almost as tasty half-free, have a bizarre and striking physical appearance that adds a bold statement to a dish. Watch out, though, as the false Gyromitra and Verpa morels share the true morels’ general spongy appearance!

Though in the right place at the right time morels can appear in profusion, their rarity and fleeting season make them all the more coveted. Indeed, the capricious, trickster quality of the morel keeps foragers on an endless quest for this charismatic harbinger of spring. While some mushrooms, such as hen of the woods, almost consistently fruit in the same locations every year while they remain alive, morels are notoriously fickle and picky about when and where they choose to show their spongy faces. In the Northeast in particular, morels are certainly out there, but they are few and far between.

After having spent more hours than I care to admit tirelessly and fruitlessly pursuing morels over the past week, I am starting to agree with visionary mycologist Paul Stamets that mushrooms have a pesky sense of humor.

The Ramp Ritual

Ephemeral wild leeks, or ramps, bring bright splashes of green to northeastern deciduous forests in early spring.

As my anticipation of morels begins to grow unbearable, I have found a welcome diversion in ramps (Allium tricoccum). On March 29 I reported seeing ramps beginning to pop through the leaves and uncurl, their vivid green hue contrasting sharply with the brown forest floor. On Tuesday, three weeks later, I returned to the same spot to find a sweeping carpet of nearly mature, densely spaced ramps, as well as several smaller satellite colonies. That very night, they were the karpas, or spring greens, on the Passover Seder plate.

Ramps, minutes from eating!

Ithaca’s forests produce a formidable bounty of these wild leeks every April, before the canopy closes in and yellows the remaining greens. In mid-May, the now leafless ramp bulb puts out a flower stalk, which blooms in June before dropping its seeds near the base of the mother plant. Both the broad leaves and small bulb have a delicious, earthy flavor and a garlicky kick that is mellowed by cooking. On top of being delicious and versatile, they are esteemed as a vitamin and nutrient-rich spring tonic.

Ramps may still be rampant throughout the deciduous forests of Appalachia, New England, and Canada, but their numbers have declined due to overharvesting. In particular, a long tradition of ramp festivals in southern Appalachia and growing demand from chefs have stressed native populations.  A recent New York Times article, “When Digging for Ramps Goes Too Deep,” highlights this problem and cites the example of Great Smoky National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Here, ramp harvesting was banned in 2004, after a study carried out by the park found that the only way to sustainably harvest ramps is to harvest less than 10% of a patch once every 10 years.

The case study of Great Smoky National Park reminds us that, while the land may offer a cornucopia of wild food, as foragers we must take great care to ethically harvest. The meaning of ethical harvesting varies depending on the species one is collecting, but in the case of ramps it means only picking sparingly from well-established patches.

Jenna harvests ramps from one of our patches in Ithaca.

Harvesting technique is often just as important as volume collected. In the case of the perennial ramp, I consider the ubiquitous practice of harvesting both bulb and leaf inane. Ramps are not garlic; the leaves contain the vast majority of the edible material, while the puny bulbs offer nothing superior in terms of flavor. I may occasionally dig up a few bulbs for pickling, but for fresh eating the leaves offer much more substance and a more unique texture. For this reason, I cut the mature ramp leaves at the base with garden scissors, leaving the bulb in the ground to produce new leaves next spring. This way, I can have my ramps and eat them too!

Spring Mushroom Cultivation & Foraging Workshop

Spring 2010 Shiitake Cultivation Workshop at Shining Sun Earth Renewal Center

Like shiitakes, morels, and lion’s mane mushrooms? If you’re in the Northeast, consider coming to Ari’s upcoming Mushroom Cultivation & Foraging Workshop! The workshop will be held at Shining Sun Earth Renewal Center in Guilford, Vermont from Friday, May 6 through Sunday, May 8, 2011. You can read more about the workshop on our Workshops & Events page, and you can view the workshop schedule here.

Maximum of 18 participants. For inquiries and registration please contact Ari via email at anr44 [at] cornell [dot] edu or via telephone at (413) 687-2184!

UPDATE - The workshop is now full! Stay tuned for future workshops, or contact Ari (see above) to be added to our mailing list.

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