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Food & Drink

Foodies have loved ramps to death. Now, Baltimore chefs aim to ramp up Maryland’s supply of the garlicky, tasty plant.

The bright green leaves of the ramps plant pop up for just a few days in early spring, smelling of garlic and tasting like extra spicy arugula. After the barrenness of winter, they’re a sign of growth to come, a fleeting delicacy.

But some people look at a patch of leaves and see a different kind of green — “dollar signs,” said Chris Amendola, the chef and owner of the restaurant Foraged in Station North.

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Within the Baltimore-area parks where he forages, Amendola has seen entire patches scooped up overnight. He is careful to not identify where he goes, for fear of attracting foragers who, he said, will “just kind of clear out everything.”

In recent years, ramps, long a cherished food for Native Americans, have become a trendy ingredient in the culinary world. In the spring, they’re a necessary item at many local farm-to-table restaurants, including Amendola’s.

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Part of their appeal lies in their elusiveness. In a globalized world in which strawberries and tomatoes are available year-round, “it’s kind of nice to have things that you can only have a certain place at a certain time,” said Helena del Pesco, a Baltimore chef who also cooks with ramps.

But all that popularity has become a detriment to the wild plants, which take around five years to mature.

Amendola is part of a small but growing effort to restore Maryland’s wild ramp population and raise awareness about sustainable harvesting practices. The chef has transplanted wild ramps to various spots around Maryland, including his own property in Baltimore County, where he is cultivating an “edible forest” that includes mushrooms.

Earlier this month, he gave away 35 plants to customers to grow where they see fit. He hopes that they forget about them and let them flourish.

“My ultimate goal is to make Maryland [home to] a plethora of ramps again,” Amendola said. “I’d hate to see this plant go away.”

Hearing about Amendola’s efforts to transplant ramps this spring inspired del Pesco. The founder of the Larder, an Old Goucher eatery that is now closed, del Pesco said the concept appealed to her inner “plant nerd.”

“I love trying things out,” she said. “Part of the fun is the experiment of it.”

When a friend invited her to dig up some ramps on her property in Pennsylvania, del Pesco decided to take a few for a piece of land owned by her husband’s family in Maryland.

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The transplanted patch in Maryland looks “super happy,” she said. But she plans to leave it alone for now.

“It takes 5-7 years for them to be ready to harvest,” she said. “If people harvest too many when they’re too young, that patch won’t come back.”

Ramps in history

Called “wa-sti” in the native language, ramps are a “very important part of being Cherokee,” said Freeman Owle, an elder in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. While his ancestors have eaten ramps for thousands of years, in Owle’s hometown of Cherokee, North Carolina, “they’re sort of hard to find anymore.”

Traditionally, the Cherokee people have snipped the ramps’ leaves while leaving the bulb intact, said Owle, who encourages others to do the same.

“They could disappear if people use them without respect,” he said.

Whether to uproot ramps by the bulbs or to just snip the leaves is a question that starkly divides ramp lovers.

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Amendola thinks that taking only the leaves does more harm than uprooting the whole plant, since the picked-at plants won’t flower.

It may seem counterintuitive, but thinning out a dense patch of ramps can actually make way for even more ramps to grow, said del Pesco, who like Amendola, prefers to dig up the plant by the bulb. When foraging, she is careful to “leave no trace as much as possible.”

Sunshine Brosi, a former associate professor of ethnobiology at Frostburg State University in Western Maryland, discourages people from harvesting ramps on public property, which she said already faces “a lot of pressure” from people hiking and doing other activities.

“I think it’s always best to grow your own instead of to go out and harvest, especially from a protected public land,” Brosi said.

Growing in wet, wooded areas, ramps soak up the light of the sun before the leaves of trees start to form. These areas may be vulnerable to invasive species, which take hold when ramps have been overharvested.

Amateur foragers also have been known to mistake skunk cabbage and lily of the valley for ramps, Brosi said. The latter is poisonous if eaten.

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Amendola said he gets “lots of texts” from people with photos of skunk cabbage that they have misidentified as ramps.

“I’m like, ‘No, don’t don’t eat that,’” Amendola said.

Less is more

While she was at Frostburg, Brosi said, she became concerned about ramps festivals like those held in parts of Maryland and West Virginia. Such events can require huge amounts of ramps.

“The idea that people can just go out and harvest as many as they want … is just not very sustainable,” said Brosi, who now works at Utah State University.

That’s not to say Brosi is against eating ramps altogether.

“I like to treat ramps as if they were truffles,” she said. Similar to the luxury fungi, “they’re really valuable.”

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At Foraged, Amendola only uses ramps sparingly, as an accompaniment, not a main dish. Guests can order fried oysters with ramp aioli, as well as a duck breast served with ramp gremolata, a sauce made with green ramp leaves taking the place of the usual parsley.

“They have such a strong flavor,” he said, “you don’t you don’t really need to use a whole lot.”

Del Pesco said she often uses ramps to make a compound butter as well as a type of ramp kimchi. The leaves “ferment really nicely,” she said.

In Baltimore, ramps are sold through the online farmer’s market Chesapeake Farm to Table. Del Pesco said that green garlic is also a good substitute.

In West Virginia, a typical preparation of ramps sees them served up with pinto beans, cornbread, ham and fried potatoes, while Owle said that many Cherokee people eat them with fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. But they’re cooked first to tame the flavor and aroma.

“If you don’t boil them,” Owle said, “you’re not able to get out in public afterward.”

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Recipe: Ramp compound butter from Helena del Pesco

Prep Time: 30 | Cook Time: 15 | Servings: 15-20 | Difficulty: Medium

Ingredients: 2 pounds unsalted high quality butter (South Mountain Creamery, Kerrygold, Cabot Creamery)

1/4 pound cleaned ramps

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 teaspoons chili flakes (aleppo, sweet paprika, urfa)

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Zest from 1 large organic lemon

Equipment: Mixing bowl, knife, cutting board, measuring spoon, saute pan, rubber spatula, stand mixer, 18 pieces parchment paper cut into 8″x8″ squares, scale

Directions: *Set butter out to come to room temperature about an hour before starting this process.

Check to make sure ramps are clean of all dirt and debris. They should also be dry. If your ramps have bulbs, cut them at the base of the leaf. Chop stems and bulbs with a sharp chef’s knife until they are minced to about the size of grains of rice.

Next gently roll the leaves and chiffonade them into 1/4-inch thick strips, then cross cut to make confetti size pieces. Combine all chopped ramps in a mixing bowl.

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Add the zest from one large lemon (organic lemons are a must to avoid chemical flavors), chile flakes and salt to the mixing bowl.

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Warm 1 tablespoon of the butter in a sauté pan until just melted. Do not let it brown. Add contents of mixing bowl and cook over medium-low heat until ramp greens are wilted, bright green and aromatic. Remove pan from heat.

Cut remaining room temperature butter into chunks and add to stand mixer. Scrape cooked ramps into stand mixer bowl, using rubber spatula to scrape all melted butter into the bowl. Using paddle attachment, start mixer on lowest setting.

If any melted butter splashed out of the bowl, start and stop several times until melted and solid butter start to incorporate. Mix on speed 3 until all butter is smooth and fully incorporated. Mixture should be consistency of peanut butter. If it is “soupy” refrigerate for 10-15 minutes to firm up.

Place one piece of parchment on scale at a time and measure about 3-4 tablespoons of compound butter.

Roll into a cylinder and twist the ends like a toffee wrapper. Repeat until all butter is packaged. Store in a sealed container in the freezer for up to 1 year. Use butter within three days after removing from the freezer, or re-freeze unused portion.

Note: If you can’t find sustainably harvested ramps, use green garlic in this recipe instead.


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