A Ramp Quest in Indiana
Each April, wild leeks (better known as ramps) lushly carpet wooded creekbeds. We followed chef Greg Hardesty to a southern Indiana farm for a foraging expedition and a spring feast.
Greg Hardesty breaks for a swig of beer. "The family that ramps together stays together," he jokes, his wife and daughters still wrestling bulbs from the ground. It's hard work. Ramps are a woodland allium prized by chefs for their sharp flavor and here-and-gone mystique. They spread prolifically but cling fiercely to each other underground, as if reminding foragers to leave behind enough of the plant to regenerate.
Nine years ago, Greg arranged for the staff of his Indianapolis restaurant Recess to meet Warren Henegar, who had restored a decimated ramp population on his farm. The crew cooked dinner in thanks, and that day, a new family was born, as tight-knit as the leafy one along Ramp Creek. Warren's descendants, Greg's kids, a who's who of Indy chefs-they all return for an annual foraging potluck and springtime thanksgiving. The table grows ever longer, but Warren, who nurtured the ramps for 30 years, is gone. "Out of winter comes spring, and out of hardship and loss come new friendships. So this is a gift," says his daughter Jane. "Ramps are a gift of spring."
Trying ramps at home
Watch for ramps at farmers markets in April, or forage your own. Wrap cleaned ramps in damp paper towels and store in a sealed bag in the fridge. Use like garlic or onion. Here are three ideas to get you started.
1 Grilled Like any onion, ramps love a little char. Grill them whole, then serve with grilled meat or piled on toast with browned mushrooms and ricotta.
2 Pickled Sweet-and-sour ramps pair nicely with rich meats or cheese, and they make a mean bloody mary garnish. Any hot vinegar brine (the kind you would use for refrigerator pickles) will work.
3 Sauteed Eggs are a good foil for ramps' intensity. Try minced, sauteed ramps in omelets, frittatas or simple scrambles. If you like, add goat cheese or herbs.
A must-have foraging guidebook
If you're intrigued by the idea of gathering wild edibles but unsure where to start, Lisa M. Rose's Midwest Foraging ($25, Timber Press) is an excellent resource. Large photos accompany to-the-point tips on responsibly finding, identifying, harvesting and cooking with 115 species. (Who knew you could saute, steam or fry redbud seedpods?)
The allure of ramps
Greg Hardesty explains: "I'd say they're a cross between a shallot, scallion and garlic. They have their own super-strong flavor. When we cut them at Recess, they smell almost cabbagey. They're the first thing of spring. That's what makes them cool. You cook carrot, turnip, potato and rutabaga all winter long, and it's like, Yes! Green!"