One of the servers came to find me today saying, "somebody's here with some greens." I'm always looking for new locals to do business with, so I went to investigate and from the end of the hall, I saw a sackful of the "greens" to the right. I was expecting salad greens, not these particular harbingers of spring. Many locals need no explanation that these are ramps (Allium tricoccum), wild lily-leaved members of the greater onion family.
From mid-April to mid-May, we find ramps in the local woods; they're fond of rich, moist soil in areas where they can get some sunlight. When walking through the woods this time of year, I find the lanceolate lily-like and leek-colored leaves highly distinctive and growing in patches, just like lily-of-the-valley, which is poisonous. Fortunately, ramps and only ramps have a distinctive garlic odor, making them easily to distinguish from any plants that might confuse you.
Some of the locals call them ramsons or wild leeks, but just about all the rest of us call them ramps. Ramson (hramsan) is an Old English term for the European version of this plant (Allium ursinum). Apparently the term came to the east coast of the US with the English settlers and was corrupted to ramp.
Ramps are becoming very popular, to the point of being trendy, with big city chefs plus there has always been good demand for them at the many ramp festivals around here this time of year. Unfortunately, this is putting a lot of pressure on the plant. If you forage for ramps yourself, leave some to reproduce another year.
To prepare ramps, wash them well as you would any onion and use them raw or cooked, both bulbs and greens, in any manner that you would use onions, green onions, or leeks. Ramps have a flavor that is a cross between an onion and garlic. Sometimes I blanch them to mellow the garlic flavor a bit, but I've found that the odor is more assertive than the actual plant tastes.
I like to caramelize ramps to heighten their natural sweetness. Caramelized ramps have been a big hit at my house on pizza with bresaola and smoked gouda. The traditional preparation around here is to make home fries of ramps and potatoes. Also great in soups (think leek and potato), risotti, stews, stir fries, and braises, the ramp is a vegetable of many talents as are all the alliums.