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When Jersey people refer to ‘ramps,’ they usually mean getting on or off the highway. But at this time of year, ramps are not a traffic subject; they are a food frenzy that can often involve foraging in the woods.
Formally known as allium tricoccum, ramp onions break ground in early spring amidst the woodland undergrowth throughout North America, and the Northeast in particular. They hang around into June before wilting and fading, and are treasured by chefs and home cooks for their pungent garlic/onion crossover qualities. Their rich, lingering taste lacks any biting sharpness and there are no tears involved in the preparation.
If I had had my eyes closed when I first encountered these delicate darlings, I might have thought I had entered a post-game locker room. Despite the aroma, I soon came to appreciate the vegetable’s ability to transform eggs, soups, salads and casseroles into something altogether special.
Running ramp-ant (pun intended) in shady forested areas, particularly in the damp loamy soil near riverbeds, clusters begin to appear perennially every March.
When they first pop out of the earth, the long, flat green leaves look a bit like flowering Lilies-of-the-Valley, but pulling them from the cool soil reveals the white bulbous root resembling a scallion.
As the plant darkens from root to greenery, the stem is beautifully tinged with shades of pink and burgundy. The bulb packs the greatest flavor punch and holds up well under heat, while the broad leaves offer a milder essence that is perfect when tossed with other greens in a salad.
Unlike West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, New Jersey doesn’t go so far as to celebrate the plant with an annual festival. But in Pennsylvania, the town of Bradford actually has something called “Stinkfest” every May that hails ramps and other aromatic cousins in the leek family.
If you head north of the border, Canada loves ramps so much that they are considered a protected species with harvesting limits.
Of course, as with the picking of any wild produce, it’s always smart to have someone with experience help identify the plant before you plan a meal around it.
Chef David C. Felton of the restaurant, Ninety Acres @ Natirar in Peapack-Gladstone, says, “Watch out for what I call fake ramps; they don’t have the red stem but look similar. Not so yummy.”
If you happen to have some wooded property of your own, ramps can easily be transplanted, and they will return year after year for your own private stink fest, provided you don’t go overboard and pick them all.
If you are not willing to lace on the hiking boots and trek into the woods, ramps will be available at Whole Foods starting this week, as well as at Thursday’s opening of the Long Valley Green Market. With even less effort, you can mail order them by the pound ($11.50) from earthydelights.com. While you're at it, why not request a copy of Ramps: Cooking with the Best Kept Secret of the Appalachian Trail (St. Lynn’s Press, $15.95), and head to the kitchen to let the culinary ramp-age begin.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.