It's springtime here in Ontario. According to the calendar been springtime for nearly two months, but the weather finally feels like spring. I get really excited with the warmer weather and not just because I'm not a fan of the cold. Sure, March brings maple syrup, and I look forward to that every year, but his time of year, May, is when the new cycle of vegetables begins. Next month we'll start to see fruit and in a month and a half the strawberries will be out. However, I'm getting ahead of myself. This post is about the start of spring vegetables! Over the next few days, I'm going to profile a few of these.

It's been awhile since I blogged regularly and I'm trying to get into a new routine – blogging first thing in the morning – and getting back to what I used to do well, in blog posts and newsletters for the CSA program I was part of. That is, research and present my research. After all, this website is about curating content and educating. My blogging mission statement for the past several years and through several blogs has been “writes to educate”.

Today: Ramps. They're the first sign of spring.

Ramps, aka wild leeks, are a North American species of wild onion. They’re part of the allium family which includes leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, green onions (scallions) and chives. They are comprised of roots, bulb, and leaves.

Wild leeks grow shaded, woody areas, in large patches of moist forest. Usually, they start appearing in late April/early May. They were late this year. The harvest season is short. Once the plant starts to flower, it's over. So, part of the excitement is the idea that the window to enjoy them fresh is short.

You might find wild leeks on your next hike. If you do, the general rule is that you don't harvest too many from the same patch, to avoid over-harvesting. Here's an excerpt from an article in Maclean's magazine (see links at the bottom of this post):

The whole life cycle lasts five to seven years, which means that, when you are lucky enough to find a batch of wild leeks with full, plump bulbs, those may be the product of a few years of growth—in addition to that laborious germination. Those are the plants that—sometimes—will flower in July, then generate seed pods.

So when you harvest large, mature plants, you want to take only a select few and leave a good swath of breeders behind. What you never want to do is rip from the earth tiny plants with small leaves and anorexic bulbs—already years old, but still too young to multiply.

So yeah, it's either a newbie mistake or a greedy one to take too many from the same place. If you know that you only want the leaves, not the bulbs, you can take more, cutting off the leaves above the soil. However, you want the bulbs. Why wouldn't you?

You likely won't forage ramps. Instead, you'll get them from your local farmers' market. Earlier in the season you'll see ramps with skinny bulbs. Ramps harvested later will have fatter bulbs, which are good for pickling.

wild leeks, ramps

Photo credit: paul_houle on Flickr

Common questions:

What's the difference between ramps and wild leeks?

Ramps and wild leeks are the same plant, but here are the differences: Wild leeks and ramps grow in different regions.  According to the website Earthy Delights, they're known as ramps when found growing in the Appalachian range, with a harvest that typically begins around the middle of April. A few weeks later they are harvested in the Great Lakes region where they are called Wild Leeks. Wild leeks generally have a larger bulb and a slightly milder flavor, especially in the leaf portion.

That said, everyone I know uses the term “ramps”. I'm using both in this post for search engine optimization purposes.

Storing fresh uncleaned ramps

Store fresh, uncleaned ramps at room temperature with their bulbs submerged in water, like a bouquet of flowers. Use them before the leaves start to wilt, in about 3 days.

Cleaning ramps

To clean ramps, snip off the roots, then rinse to remove soil, remove the roots, and peel off the paper-thin skin covering the bulb.

image credit: Dano272 on Flickr

image credit: Dano272 on Flickr

Storing cleaned ramps

To store cleaned ramps, wrap them loosely in moist paper towels, seal in a zip-top bag, and store in the refrigerator; they'll keep for up to 5 days. Once they go brown or slimy, they're garbage.

What do ramps taste like?

The flavour and odour of ramps are similar to those of onions and garlic. This makes them a great addition to cooking, but you can also eat them raw. They're sweet too. To me, they taste “fresh”.

What can I do with ramps?

  • Ramp pesto
  • pizza
  • dehydrate them, then crush the dried ramps into powder to use as a seasoning. If you have a dehydrator, 117 degrees for 4-6 hours.
  • add to frittatas
  • grilled
  • ramp soup
  • mixed into pasta
  • added to stock
  • Freeze them. Rinse and dry, separate bulb from leaf, freeze in something airtight.

Use your imagination, and Google. Recipes have never been a regular part of my blogging.

Health benefits of ramps

There are so many, but here are some:

Sulfur

As part of the allium family, wild leeks are rich in several sulfurous compounds, which help our bodies detoxify and offer us anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Bonus tip: Sulfuric acid is what makes you cry when you cut onions.

Polyphenols

Wild leeks are rich in polyphenols, including the flavonoid kaempferol. Kaempferol works to protect the lining of the blood vessels against damage while supporting the liver in cholesterol elimination.

Quercetin

Ramps are high in quercetin, a flavonoid antioxidant that acts as an anti-histamine, protecting us from allergies, hay fever and asthma.  Quercetin plays an important part in fighting free radical damage, the effects of aging and inflammation. Inflammation is the root of several diseases,  including heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, some mental disorders and autoimmune disorders.

Iron

Wild leeks are high in iron. If you're a woman, one wild leek contains 10 percent of your RDA of iron for the day.

Choline

Wild leeks contain choline. Along the benefits of choline: Choline helps support the nervous system and brain function and development.  Choline supports energy levels, and I recently read that it's can help with adrenal fatigue (I'll post about adrenal fatigue soon!). Choline is important for liver function too. “Choline” rhymes with “Jolene”, like the Dolly Parton song. (Glee covered it.)

Folate

Wild leeks contain folate, an essential B vitamin. Folate supports the nervous system. Researchers have verified a close connection between the production of multiple neurotransmitters and availability of folate.  Folate supports cardiovascular health, lowering risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Folate supports a healthy pregnancy – folate deficiency can affect a fetus's nervous system development. Folate is one of many nutrients necessary for the production of red blood cells. Forage for flora with folate.

Vitamin A

A 1-cup serving satisfying 30 percent of the recommended daily value based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. Vitamin A is essential for the immune system, for good eyesight (especially low light vision), and for the formation of healthy teeth, bones and skin.

Where to get fed ramps in Toronto

Several places I'm sure, but it's my duty to share this: Head over to Kitchen By Pork Ninjas at Wenona Lodge, 1069 Bloor St. W. Jason – my significant other and co-parent to my dog – has ramped his menu this week. In celebration of spring, he's using ramps throughout our menu for the week, and he's got fiddleheads for your BBQ plates. Jason sources his meat exclusively from Canadian producers. He buys as local as availability, quality and budget will allow. All of the animals used were grass-fed with no hormones or antibiotics. They taste better and they're better for you. (I'll do another post about that  too.)
[Update: The ramp & fiddlehead menu is finished, but go visit anyway.]

My dinner there last night included pulled pork and kimchi eggrolls – with ramps – and the ramps gave my favourite menu item something even more special. The fiddleheads were fantastic. Fiddleheads are tomorrow's post.

Wherever you live, what's your favourite spring vegetable?

References and further reading: