Ramps, wild leeks, l’ail des bois—whatever you call Allium tricoccum—are a pungent member of the onion family with a much-touted flavor. Falling somewhere between a scallion and garlic, they have enough oomph to make a first (or 300th) date unkissable. This forerunner of spring forage has a long history of folk medicine use, and is celebrated in the Appalachian mountain region with countless festivals and cook-offs.
“Ramps, like a lot of foraged ingredients, have become gentrified over the past ten years,” says Cassidee Dabney, executive chef of The Barn at Blackberry Farm resort and hotel in Walland, Tennessee, located in the Smoky Mountain foothills—the heart of ramp country. Overharvesting of these wild onions pushed Smoky Mountain National Park to ban their forage in 2002.
That said, ramps range from Georgia into Canada, and as far west as Missouri. Slow reproduction rates and a preference for shady deciduous forest make them a challenge to cultivate commercially, but not impossible. Dabney typically pays $10 per pound from her local foragers, but acquiring them through a foraged ingredient supplier can easily triple that cost.
“When I get my ramps in I like to go ahead and clean the outer peel of the bulb. Then I separate the ramp into three parts—the bulb, the middle and the green tops,” Dabney says. “The green tops have a much shorter life span than the bulb does. During ramp season we like to use so much of the green tops. For example, we turn it into a butter, we make a puree, etc. Then we’ll make a ramp jam or ramp chimichurri out of the middle stems. If we’re not using the bulbs fresh, we’re pickling them.”
During the season, ramps may appear in a variety of dishes and applications at Blackberry Farm. One of Dabney’s favorites is a simple hearth-fried farm egg. “Our eggs are freshly harvested from the property every day, and they have a really great color and texture,” she says. “We fry the eggs in chicken fat and throw them in our hearth so they get really crispy at the bottom. Then, we very simply sauté off some morels—another local seasonal ingredient that’s great with ramps because ‘what grows together goes together.’ Next we fold in some of the ramp bottoms, finish with the ramp tops, and add a little pat of butter and some salt. The egg tops this wonderful sauté of mushrooms and ramps, with a drizzle of smoked hickory gastrique.”
Because the odor of ramps can be quite overwhelming, to both the guest and cooks, Dabney recommends limiting them to one or two dishes on the menu at a time.
As ramp season winds down in May and June, the bulbs are more developed and perfect for pickling. “It really maintains the flavor of the ramp, and it extends it for a long time,” says Dabney. She uses a simple 1:1:1 sugar, vinegar and water pickling liquid. Because the regional Appalachian foothills cuisine doesn’t have a relevant caper, gherkin or other salty pickled ingredient, Dabney utilizes pickled ramps in their place as needed for her recipes.
“A lot of people are taking ingredients that are soulful in one place and putting them in another place, which doesn’t really make sense. Use ingredients that are local and soulful to your region,” advises Dabney. Outside the ramp range? There are more than 100 varieties of wild alliums in the U.S. Just befriend and follow an experienced forager in your area.