There are a million little signs that quietly whisper d’early spring at The Muddy Kitchen: the house flies that gather for one last hurrah and then up and die by the handful on the windowsills, the tiny artichokes that make their way onto our table, fried whole to a crisp in olive oil and dusted with crunchy sea salt, the winter coats and boots that retire to the downstairs closets to make way for the bright basket of flip flops, garden clogs and barely-there canvas jackets.
But nothing is so magical as the arrival of wild ramps in the woods by the side of the road off Rt. 22 in Canaan.
I mark the event on my iCalendar and set it to repeat every year until the end of time. I have the patch mapped on my GPS along with the longitude and latitude of local elderberry bushes and my surefire spots for watercress. Drive by a week too early and the blanket of green won’t be there yet. A few weeks later and some other, less edible weed will have taken over the base of the forest.
Unlike the docile chanterelle or the free-floating cress, ramps will fight with you to stay right where they are. Their stubborn roots twist and hang onto the earth with determination. I bring my nastiest knives and show them who’s boss. I wear gloves. I bring friends.
Once home, they still remain determined to stay earthbound. It usually requires a few glasses of wine and a relentless blast from the hose to clean them. It’s a job best done with a buddy…and some elbow grease.
I’m a glutton in the woods when the food is free, so I always have too many ramps to know what to do with. The blade-like tops make for a so-so pesto or a decent plate of wilted greens for a desperate diner, but it’s the pale-bottomed bulb that’s the prize. I pickle them by the thousands and still never have enough jars to last me though the summer.
Sweet rice wine vinegar is the perfect foil for the bright, mildly-garlicy crunch of the ramp. I fork a puddle of pickled ramps beside a slab of pâté or atop a dark rye smørrebrød and herring…but that makes it sound like I really put a ton of forethought into it – usually I just eat them straight from the jar while standing barefoot in front of the refrigerator, coffee in hand.
You will need about 6 pint jars for canning or, if you’re not ‘putting them up’, just jars to keep them in the fridge for the few weeks they will last. I like to use small jars because I never eat a majorly huge amount at one time. But you can also just make 1 or 2 larger batches and fork out your servings from that.
1 lb of ramps cleaned and trimmed (see below)
2 cups sugar
2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 cups water
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tsp black peppercorns
Note: I sometimes run out of brine when I’m filling my jars and then scramble to boil up another batch. I guess one could argue that doubling the brine recipe from square 1 isn’t a bad idea, especially if you have a bounty of ramps.
Clean the ramps:
If you pay $20 lb at Whole Foods for already-cleaned ramps then you can skip the following step, but if you get them FOR FREE IN THE WOODS!! prepare to put a little sweat equity into the deal. I use the brute force of a hose to blast the mud, grit and outside layer off the ramp clump. This tends to separate them into individual ‘scallion-esque’ bulbs and gets them right down to their nubile center. Once there, trim off the roots and slice off the dark green tops. (You can then steam that green part like spinach or make up a pesto with it, but you’ll get real tired of it, real soon. Ask me’hubby.)
Make the brine:
- Combine all the brine ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar and salt is dissolved.
Pack ’em up:
- Pack each jar tightly with ramps.
- Pour the brine over the ramps until each jar is full.
- Let the jars of ramps cool to room temperature then transfer to the fridge (or process and ‘put up’). You can eat these right away but they’ll be gnarly-strong in a garlic-breath-to-kill-ya kinda way. A few days of hanging out in the brine mellows them out.
Take your boots off before you come in here!