Many of our readers have heard of Ramps. This past week they have started to raise their pointy tips up from the soil. For those that are unfamiliar with our mountain ramps, they are a species of wild onion that grows in patches in the rich woods and along the draws of these mountains. They are not common. A skilled harvester usually finds a patch and nurtures it. The onions come up year after year and slowly spread. Ramp festivals are held throughout the Appalachians and ramps are becoming so well loved that they are even served in the finest of California and New York restaurants for sky high prices.
A plant that is often mistaken for Ramps (allium tricoccum) is False Hellebore (Veratrum sp.). False Hellebore grows along the double loop trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. It is quite toxic. When it first emerges from the soil it resembles both ramps and lady slippers. Ramps are well known for the strong smell that emanates from both the leaf and especially the white bulb. The odor resembles the fragrance of onions or leeks. If you eat a large amount of ramps the strong odor will linger around you for several days!
Ramps come up in the early spring. Usually, you see their green leaves around the end of April here in Graham County. This year I have already seen the emerging ramps at 3500 feet elevation. Ramps have the same medicinal properties as garlic. I decided to experiment with various recipes using ramps this year and make homemade cream of asparagus soup flavored with sautéed ramps. I was a little concerned that the strong flavor and odor of the ramps would overpower the asparagus but to my delight, the two flavors balanced themselves perfectly. Asparagus soup with ramps is now going to be one of my favorite spring recipes.
One of my neighbors who has lived here in Robbinsville along Beech Creek his whole life, shared his favorite recipe. He remembers family and friends working together to prepare the land for tobacco and corn, planting early potatoes and helping elderly neighbors with their gardens. As a treat, he described how they would fix lunch under the trees over a fire. They would first cook bacon in a Dutch oven or covered skillet. Then they would place the washed ramps in the bacon grease and cover the pan with a lid until the ramps were tender. Eggs were then added and scrambled and the final product was shared by everyone.
Another great way to cook ramps is to add them to fresh trout dishes. In Graham County, baby trout (fingerlings) are valued as much as the larger trout that most people are used to eating. One local fisherman I met told me that he was collecting the small trout, usually about 2-4 inches long, and cooking them up in bacon grease along with a seasoning of local ramps. He and his grandfather traditionally cook up this dish every spring. It’s a family tradition.
I love good food. Especially food that is prepared from plants that have been harvested from our woods and fields. Ramps are a great addition to a traditional spring menu if you are lucky enough to know where they grow or to have a friend that does. Just keep in mind that we want to always have them here and don’t pull up all you find. Be a wise harvester and replant the smaller plants carefully in the same spot. If you want to transplant a few to your land, make sure you plant them in similar environmental circumstances.