Relishing the Ramp: Foraging for the Wild Cousin of the Onion

Ramps, the first edible sign of spring, are popping up throughout the woods of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But this wild cousin of garlic and onion is also popping up on an increasing number of restaurant menus--some as far away as Southern California. Scientists are beginning to worry ramps newfound popularity can put them at risk. The Allegheny Frontís Hal B. Klein has more. See Transcript for Chad Townsend's ramp recipes. Townsend is sous-chef of Pittsburgh's Salt of the Earth restaurant.

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HOST: At this time of the year, onion and garlicís wild cousin the ramp is popping up in the woods of PA and WV. Theyíre also popping up as the latest trend in the local food scene. Scientists worry ramps newfound popularity can put them at risk. The Allegheny Frontís Hal B. Klein has more.

KLEIN: Ramps are the first edible sign of spring. Their garlic snap is prized by local food enthusiasts. And the best way bring ramps home is still the traditional wayóheading to the woods to get your hands a bit dirty. Thatís what Chad Townsendís doing on this sunny spring day. Townsend, a sous-chef at a Pittsburgh restaurant, woke up early, grabbed a small shovel and friend, and drove forty minutes to the same wooded hillside in Beaver County where heís foraged for the past six years.
TOWNSEND: So weíre starting to see some small ones, and as we get closer to the spot weíll see fuller patchesótheyíll get more dense and larger, like that little spot up there.

KLEIN: He points to a clump of plants with broad green leaves, purple-pink stems, and white bulbs. Once you know what to look for, theyíre easy to spot. Here, the stretch far across the woods.

TOWNSEND: Divide up a little bit, if theyíre real little leave them. I mean youíll get the occasional little one in there and thatís ok. Take a little bit out a patch and leave it. Take what you want, take what youíll eat, and donít throw them away.

KLEIN: Townsend's instructions echo the philosophy of long-time foragers: take what you need for a few meals, and then leave the rest of the patch to recuperate for next season. In recent years, however, ramp festivals in West Virginia have grown in popularity, and ramps are showing up on more restaurant menus. Ramps can even be found on a $20 ìForagerís Pizzaî at a restaurant in Santa Monica. canít forage for ramps anywhere in California, that means ramps are being shipped across the country. Itís this type of commercialization that has Jan Schultz, a lead botanist with the U.S. Forest Serviceóherself a confessed ramp loveróconcerned.

SCHULTZ: Theyíre such a treat in the spring. The leaves, the bulbsóboth of them. But that is the question, the sustainability versus the enjoyment. What level should we be assuming we can offer this commercially? Itís not like orange carrots in a bag. It needs to be, as far as I can tell, enjoyed in small quantities.

KLEIN: Thatís because ramps are slow to proliferate and if too many are harvested from a location, the land can easily be overrun with faster growing species. Schultz fears that people who are just looking to make a quick buck selling ramps might not be educated about the consequences of pulling too many ramps from a particular site.

SCHULTZ: Itís very conceivable that at a local level populations can be extricated or eliminated fairly readily. They can readily be over harvested in just a few years, even a matter of one.

KLEIN: Yet...Schultz sees an opportunity for commercial growers: ramps are ready for harvest early in the year, and grow in dark, wooded areas not suited for farm crops. So, Shultz says, the underused land could be put to use supplying ramps for festivals and restaurants.

SCHULTZ: Once you get them established and theyíre happy, they will last forever.

KLEIN: Thatís what Townsend is hoping for as he looks over the the ramps left to grow on the hillside.

TOWNSEND: I hope to keep it forever, and show my kids how to pick ramps and enjoy the woods and be a part of what Western PA has to offer. The more people that are excited about things like this the better. More people will take care of our woods if theyíre out and they know they donít treat the woods right, theyíre not going to have ramps or morels or chanterelles. Thatís kind of a positive thing I think.

KLEIN: For the Allegheny Front, Iím Hal B. Klein

Spicy Ramp-Bottom Pickles
25 ramp bulbs (leaves removed)
2 Thai Bird chiles, split
2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 cup granulated sugar
2 cup water

1: Clean ramp bottoms very well making sure to remove the fibrous root ends, rinse in several changes of water to remove mud.
2: While you are cleaning the ramp bulbs combine liquids and chiles in non reactive pot and put on medium high heat.
3: Bring to a hard boil taking care not to allow to boil too long after bringing liquid up.
4: While liquid is coming to a boil place bulbs in non reactive container (preferably glass)
5: Pour hot liquid over ramps, cover and allow to sit at room temp until cool
6: When cool refrigerate

Ramps will stay good indefinitely, as long as they are covered with liquid. These are refrigerator pickles and not meant to be canned and left on shelf

Ramp- Mint Pesto

All the tops left from bottoms of ramps that were pickled
4 large bunches mint
Zest of 1 lemon
1.5 cup good fruity olive oil
2 oz marcona almonds

1: Wash ramp tops well in cold water
2: In food processor add picked mint, ramps and olive oil
3: Allow to run for a minute or two until ramps and mint are finely chopped
4: Add almonds process slightly until almonds are chopped but not too fine
5: Add lemon at end and pulse just until incorporated otherwise lemon will become bitter
6: Add salt to taste