The innocent looking little vegetable is one that’s very easy to miss. You’ll only find it for a few short weeks in early spring, and more likely at a farmer’s markets than your average grocer. It’s the ramp, a pungent-yet-balanced mix of onion and garlic, revered among foodies nationwide.
“Ramps are a kind of exciting ingredient,” said Chris Royster, chef de cuisine at Boulder’s Flagstaff House. “Every spring I usually have them in six or seven dishes. I love them, and I love having them on the menu.” For him, part of their charm is the childhood memories they evoke who picked them with brothers while fishing. “We’d pick them, grill them and eat them together as a family.”
Royster isn’t alone in his excitement. Time writer Josh Ozersky once called the enthusiasm over the wild vegetable “The Church of the Ramp.” The delicacy, often called a wild leek, is said to taste better than cultivated leeks, chives or scallions. The garlicky flavor, combined with the texture of a scallion – even with the little white bulb at the end – is something chefs crave and diners eat up by the pound for three short weeks every year.
“Charred ramps are delicious. Grilled ramps are beautiful too,” Royster said. He loves to feature the garlic-flavored treat on his spring menu. But it’s not just ramps that signify the flavors of the season – garlic is extra flavorful and delicious this time of year as well. “Not too long ago we did this dish – based on kind of a mushroom tart — but we took a ton of garlic and roasted it for quite a while on a low temperature and then we made this incredibly heavy garlic broth. We aerated it, turned it into a foam and served it on a dish. That way it was a big aroma of garlic as well as you could bite into it and get some of that garlic flavor without being overwhelmed.”
If all that garlic is too much for you, consider spring onions, Royster compares to the texture of a scallion but It has big leafy green leaves on top. He prepares them like ramps. He already has ideas for bringing these seasonal treats to Flagstaff House dishes. “We have a plan to grill them off and incorporate them into minimal butter sauce of some sort soon,” Royster said. “It’s not on the menu but it’s kind of our plan to take the bulbs of the spring onion and pickle them and present them on a spring salad. We have ferns in from the west coast lots of different wild string beans and those pickled onions are a nice little added taste.”
That’s right; these little wildlings are brought in, though some crafty farmers may be growing small batches nearby. That said, Royster will use those ingredients to play with some mushrooms and onions, which do well in Colorado. “There are lots of different mushrooms, and a lot of the farms around here plant different kinds of onions and garlic early so that way there’s a good use of spring onions in the area. The farms make up for what we can’t find in the wild.
Check your local farmer’s market, or the menus of several restaurants in the Boulder area, to get in on ramps season before they’re gone. They shouldn’t be too hard to find. “Most chefs in the area are crazy about ramps,” Royster said. “That’s definitely a really fun thing for everybody. It’s such a short season and it’s such a beautiful ingredient that everybody uses them as much as possible.”