Foragers Ramp Up for Spring
By Aaron Munzer
In spring, when warm breezes and robins return, Josh Dolan heads for a steep woodlot in Enfield to gather one of the tastiest heralds of the season. “Ramps are generally the first green thing available,” he says.
Dolan is amongst the many who have become enamored with the green delicacy, and he is public about his vegetal adoration; a bouquet of the lily-like plants tattooed on his forearm bears witness to his obsession. “It’s a constant reminder that I’m responsible for taking care of ramps,” he says. “They’re my keystone species.”
When he finds a patch, Dolan gently loosens the soil with a hand fork, drives his fingers deep and lifts out the succulent bulbs, with vivid green tops still intact. Then he carefully tamps the soil back into place, leaving little trace of his harvest. Because of the slow pace at which ramps mature, Dolan never digs the largest plants and limits his annual take to insure ample supplies in years to come. He also collects seeds, then spreads them in autumn to replace his harvest.
Also known as wild leeks—and a distant relative of both onions and garlic—Allium tricoccum is one of the few gourmet foodstuffs not grown commercially. The tender, white bulb has a subtle flavor reminiscent of its domesticated cousins, while the leaves taste of pungent spinach—qualities that have propelled the plant’s popularity with foragers and chefs alike. Restaurants pay $8 to $10 a pound—and when the season begins, their garlicky aroma pervades the prep area of kitchens throughout the region.
The brief season also drives some culinary creativity. By the time leaves shade the woodland floor, the ephemeral crop’s season has faded. Chef Hans Butler (pictured above) forages his own, then pickles them. He warms vinegar, water, salt, sugar, cinnamon, bay leaf and allspice, then pours the hot brine over the white bulbs and stems in a glass canning jar. The results are a mainstay on the charcuterie plate at Dano’s Heuriger on Seneca, where Butler often helps out. “It’s nice to take something that is the first thing to pop in the woods, preserve that and extend its season,” Butler says. “And in the middle of the winter when you can put pickled ramps on the menu, it’s a good reminder of what is coming soon.”
Not everyone who plucks the delicate plants means to sell them. Jed Jordan, a founder of the wilderness survival and skills camp Primitive Pursuits, uses them as a teaching tool to connect children to the forest. “We talk about how they show if the forest is healthy and the kids can see their impact after they harvest them: When you pull them out, you’ve left bare soil,” he says. “We also talk about gathering seeds to replant. There’s a very intentional lesson about harvesting and being aware of our impact.” Most of all, he says, the kids love the process of unearthing the fragrant forest gems. “It’s kind of like a treasure—buried in the ground.”
Finely chop the greens and white bulbs; sauté with scrambled eggs
Toss whole, with olive oil, salt and pepper; grill briefly over high heat
Sauté chopped green leaves in olive oil and add to warm pasta with grated Parmesan.
This article originally appeared in our Spring 2011 issue.