Four days ago, I had never even heard of "ramps" (in the sense of a vegetable), but on Friday the 26th, I had a great revelation. That morning I went up to the Swarthmore COOP to replenish my larder, which had been pretty much emptied out before I left on a trip to Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Right while I was standing in the produce section contemplating whether to buy kale, baby bok choi, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, or some other vegetable, a lanky Irishman (I could tell from his accent) brought in two big bags of greens, the likes of which I'd never seen before.
Standing nearby was Ed, the knowledgeable head of our produce section. I asked him what this mysterious vegetable was, and he said it is called "ramps", which is a kind of wild garlic. Apparently it cannot be cultivated (or at least it is customarily not cultivated), and it is only available for six weeks in the spring. So I came back from my travels at just the right time!
The tall Irishman had gotten the ramps from a farmer-gatherer named Frank who lives about 30 miles west of Swarthmore. Frank also supplies the COOP with regular garlic and heirloom tomatoes at other times during the year.
This is a real boon for me (a veritable garlic freak) — to come back just when ramps are in season.
I thought that I had made a great discovery, but lo and behold, when I started telling people about ramps, it transpired that they have become quite the rage. You might say that all of a sudden there has been a ramping up of ramps!
One friend informed me that, just the night before, she herself had heard of ramps for the first time when she dined at the Cheu Noodle Bar in South Philadelphia.
Sure enough, the menu has ramp kimchi and ramp dumplings, and apparently they use ramps in other dishes as well. But I was dubious that they were really serving true ramps for several reasons. First of all, ramps are expensive and there is only a limited supply, since they have to be gathered in the woods. Another reason for my suspicion was that the Cheu Noodle Bar is clearly an Asian-inspired eating establishment, with plenty of fusion dishes being offered. I guessed that they might actually be serving jiǔcài 韭菜, which is a kind of chive (see below for the precise terms of all the Allium species mentioned in this post) that is very popular in Chinese cooking though notoriously difficult to translate into English, but calling it ramp, either through exoticism or not being able to find the right word in English for this Chinese vegetable.
I decided to go down to Cheu Noodle Bar the next day and try out this new restaurant for myself as well as determine whether they were using true ramps or jiǔcài 韭菜 in their recipes. It turns out that they were indeed using true ramps in a number of their dishes. The food, by the way, was both distinctive and delicious.
Once my eyes were open to them, ramps were showing up everywhere, including in the New York Times (4/26/13): "In the Ramp Debate, He’s a ‘Yea’"
"Ramps" (the vegetable!) has now become a part of my vocabulary, and I shall be looking forward to tasting their sweet, succulent, garlicky flavor every spring around this time.
Just to sort things out nomenclaturally, ramp (Allium tricoccum) is a type of spring onion, wild leek, or wild garlic (it has many other names in various dialects; up close it looks more leek-like than garlic-like) that grows wild from South Carolina to Quebec.
Chinese jiǔcài 韭菜, which I also love, may be referred to as garlic chives or Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum). I used to grow them in a barrel in my backyard. One neat thing about jiǔcài 韭菜 is that you can cut off the tops with a pair of scissors and they'll grow right back. So, from a single packet of seeds, you can have jiǔcài 韭菜 for many months.
Chives proper (Allium schoenoprasum) are much more delicate and dainty, adding a more subtle spice to one's cooking. I sometimes find chives growing amidst the grass in people's yards, where it had perhaps escaped from gardens nearby.
Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) are less favored in my kitchen, because I view them as a sort of cross between onions and the other Allium species mentioned in this post, while having the pure virtues of none of them, and also, quite frankly, because I haven't come across many good recipes that call for leeks.
I won't enter here into the wonders of the bulb onion or common onion (Allium cepa) in all of its countless varieties, but will only state that it is a staple in my household, and I like onions both cooked and uncooked.
My uncontested favorite of all the Allium species, however, is garlic (Allium sativum). I always carry a liberal supply of garlic with me when I go on expeditions and trips to difficult environments, because I have found that it seems to act as a sort of bactericide when I start to develop stomach or intestinal problems, and cures all sorts of other ailments. In general, eating lots of fresh garlic gives me a sense of well-being, though I must admit that it also keeps people at a safe distance.
A closing note: all of these pungent vegetables were frowned upon by the Buddha. Consequently, though I teach Buddhism, I would make a very bad Buddhist, since I relish each and every one of them.
[Thanks to Michael Carr, June Teufel Dreyer, and Paula Roberts]