Last year I went Ramp foraging for the first time. Ramps (this is what Vermonters call wild leeks) are a big deal in Vermont, so much so that our paper featured Governor Shumlin’s annual ramp picking expedition. Click here to view Gov. Shumlin’s Wild Ramp Pasta recipe. The Vermont Epicure featured a story titled Stalking the Wild Leek, the Forage Press highlighted leeks as the April’s wild food of the month, and Seven Days ran a feature titled A Writer Gathers Wild Leeks by the Roadside last spring.
Speaking of spring, that’s the perfect time to go foraging for leeks – I’ve learned that they are in season right before and up to a few weeks after Memorial Day in Vermont. I had no idea how secretive Vermonters are about their hidden treasures – I mean nobody wants to tell you were these spicy little gems are… My own mother swore me to secrecy when she showed me her spot in Randolph last year. Apparently I passed the test as she showed me where to find them in East Montpelier this year! The only hint I can give you is that they usually grow on a hillside shaded by trees (many times these are maples), and are relatively close to a natural water source (think brook or stream). If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably walk all over them while searching for them – personally, I think their leaves look a bit like lilies. Here’s a photo of my score this year:
An important reason why folks protect their ramp patches is that ramps are often over-harvested. The seeds can take a year and a half to germinate, and the plants may not produce seeds until they are at least 5 years old. So if many plants are taken from a given patch year after year, that patch may not survive. If you decide to experiment with ramps, harvest less than 5% of a given patch, or learn to cultivate your own. The NY Times has published more information on over-harvesting of ramps.
I google recipes and modify based on the ingredients I have collected the garden / Farmer’s Market or have readily available in my kitchen.
If you don’t own a food processor, I would highly recommend investing in one (or borrowing a friend’s, which I did the first few times I made pesto). So, for Ramp Pesto I googled recipes (I’ve listed a basic pesto recipe) and went from there. Put the following ingredients in a food processor and blend until creamy:
Wild Ramp leaves and bulbs 3-4 handfuls basil, rinsed
1-2 handfuls toasted walnuts Olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon 3-4 shallots
Salt (I use Sea Salt or Pink Himalayan) Small piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
2 spoonfuls sundried tomatoes with oil 1 can Hearts of Palm or Artichokes, drained
The amount of Ramp leaves and bulbs depends on how much pesto you want to make. I made a big batch, so I filled the food processor full of ramps, drizzled with olive oil and blended until smooth. I emptied that into a big bowl, and then blended the rest of the ingredients and added to the ramp mixture. I add the salt and olive oil based on taste – after I blend the mixture, I taste it and add more if I think it needs it.
The Hearts of Palm (or artichokes), ginger, and sundried tomatoes are completely optional. I don’t use cheese in my pesto, so I think these give the pesto a nice dimension. I’ve experimented using pistachios and toasted pecans instead of walnuts – they are great options, really depends on what you like in terms of nuts. I’ve also used kale, oregano, and sage as my greens in the pesto – again, depends on your personal taste. The fun of it is finding out how different ingredients taste together, and what you like! I tried grapeseed oil instead of olive oil – I would not recommend this substitution.
Here’s what my pesto looks like:
Here’s a basic pesto recipe you can use as a guide:
Basil Walnut Pesto via Once Upon a Chef
2 cups gently packed fresh basil leaves 2 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano 1/3 cup walnuts
1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, best quality such as Lucini or Colavita
Place the walnuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process until coarsely chopped, about 10 seconds. Add the basil leaves, salt, and pepper and process until mixture resembles a paste, about 1 minute. With the processor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube and process until the pesto is thoroughly blended. Add the Parmesan and process a minute more. Use pesto immediately or store in a tightly sealed jar or air-tight plastic container, covered with a thin layer of olive oil (this seals out the air and prevents the pesto from oxidizing, which would turn it an ugly brown color). It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week. (If you’re planning on freezing it, omit the cheese and stir it in once you defrost it.)