The winters may be callously cold, and the summers disagreeably humid, but for about two weeks each year, New York has an amazing spring that’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world. For me, part of what makes NYC’s spring so memorable are the pastel green ramps (wild leeks) that start popping up in parks around the city. The satiny strokes of colour emerge from the forest floor as though they were painted onto the last years brown detritus by a painter’s brush.
Because ramps are highly perishable, most grocery stores don’t carry them, and unless you live in an area where they grow, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a chance to wrap your tastebuds around this magnificent member of the onion family. Part of the hype may be the regional and seasonal constraints, but unlike other seasonal delicacies like fiddleheads, ramps burst at the seams with flavour. A flavour that can best be described as something in between green garlic and sweet onions.
So where can you find them? If you’re in the US, there are a couple websites sell them by the pound, and I’ve even seen them show up on eBay from time to time. But if happen to live in the north east, you can just go find your nearest wooded parkland and hunt for them. If you’re lucky, you’ll find fields of the tulip shaped leaves poking up through the forrest floor. Before you go run off ramp hunting though, make sure you read up on the native plants in your area, there are many plants (some toxic) with similar looking leaves. If in doubt, use your nose. When you crush the ramp leaves between your fingers, they should smell strongly of garlic.
I led a foraging expedition out into the wilds of Yonkers over the weekend, and due to the wet winter and early onset of spring weather, the ramp population was particularly abundant this year. We ended up having a good deal of leftover greens, which we divided amongst ourselves. To offset the gout inducing meat binge we had on Saturday, I decided to go with something fresh and light: Ramp Pesto with home made tagliatelle.
It’s even easier than a more traditional basil pesto because get the green and the garlic from 1 ingredient, the ramps. Some toasted pine nuts went in to play up that forest flavour, and I threw in small hunk of ricotta insalata for some added umami. Serving the pasta with lemon wedges rather than adding it directly to the pesto keeps the ramps from loosing their verdant colour and adds a touch of brightness to the intense green and garlicky pasta. I did end up adding a few chunks of left over braised pork belly to finish the dish, but it would be just as good without the meat.
- Add the ramps, olive oil, pine nuts, ricotta salt and pepper to a blender or food processor. Spin until it's mostly smooth, but there is still a bit of texture to the pesto (i.e. you don't want to puree it)
- Boil the pasta in well salted water according to the package directions. Drain, reserving a little of the pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot and add the pesto. Toss to coat evenly, adding pasta water if it starts sticking together
- Plate and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing