by Laura Fieselman
I had the great pleasure of joining friends for a weekend near the Carolina-Virginia line in early May. One of these friends happens to be a forester by training and she offered us a very special gift while we were there: “I know a patch of ramps,” she said. “Want to go?” Of course I wanted to go.
Of course I wanted a chance to see these famed wild leeks in their native habitat. The plants are at once elusive–she only showed us her patch after vows to be good stewards of Appalachia’s ramps–and ubiquitous–en route we passed driveway after driveway with tables piled high with freshly pulled ramps, spray-painted signs and bearded men with big waves calling to us to stop and buy a bundle.
We didn’t though. We kept on driving, past weathered barns and plywood signs proclaiming “Jesus saves” and “Closed to Hunting” tacked to roadside trees. We climbed up into the hills, parked, grabbed our foraging bags and baskets, and ventured into the forest.
She versed us in identification: “The leaves look like ramps and the base is purple. You can double check by tasting a leaf; it should taste like a ramp.” Thankfully, I already had a sense of these mild onion-esque plants with wide, flat leaves. She showed us how to look in wet areas near streams, and schooled us in her ethics of wild harvesting: we must leave the bottom portion of the bulbs intact, we mustn’t take too many from any one patch, we must stop after we’ve gathered enough for a meal or two.
And then she taught us how to pull the forest soil away from the bulbs of the ramps and gently extract them. I practiced slipping my thumb down along the bulb and popping the ramp free from its roots. It was easy enough, and we cleaned them right there in the field, quickly gathering a handful each.
“Do you know how to cook them?” she asked me. “I like to put the bulbs in a skillet hash,” she offered, “and the leaves with any greens. You can pickle them too. Or I might dry these in the dehydrator.” I already knew exactly what I planned to do with my bundle, and reached to gather some stinging nettle, another prolific plant in this ecosystem, for the recipe I had in mind.
An adaptation of Annie Sommerville’s Winter Greens Soup in her Field of Greens is a favorite recipe for cooking with nettles, and though I’d never made it with ramps, I knew it was the one I wanted to try. Back at the car we tossed our harvests into the cooler and several hours later I was in the kitchen washing and cleaning our spoils. Both went into the soup, both made it amazing. Light and healthful, we joked about “feeling the vitamins coursing through our veins” as we ate it. But really, could anything this spring be more fresh or full of nutrients?
Winter Greens Soup
from Field of Greens by Annie Sommerville
(adapted by author for spring ramps and nettles May 2014)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 bunch of ramps
Salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium-size potato, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
¼ dry white wine
1 gigantic bunch of stinging nettles, chopped
4 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 recipe garlic croutons (recipe follows)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil in a soup pot and add the ramps, ½ teaspoon of salt, and several pinches of pepper. Sauté over medium heat until the ramps are soft, about 10 minutes. Then add the garlic, potato, and carrot. Sauté until the vegetables are are nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine. Stir in the nettles, 1 teaspoon of salt, a few pinches of pepper, and the stock. Cover the pot and cook the soup for 15-20 minutes until the nettles are tender.
Puree the soup in a blender or food processor until it is smooth. Season with the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Garnish each serving with Garlic Croutons and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
from Field of Greens by Annie Sommerville
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¼ baguette, thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine the olive oil and garlic. Lay the slices of baguette on a baking sheet and brush them lightly with the garlic oil. Bake for about 8 minutes, until the croutons are crisp and lightly browned.
Laura Fieselman is a graduate student in the Folklore program at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-founder of Raleigh City Farm. She likes exploring the forests and rivers of North Carolina and delights in all things edible. Strawberries and fried okra top the list of her favorite foods.