Wild ramps: enjoy the hunt, but don’t take too many
Food for Health: Cynthia Hochswender
May, 05, 2011
It used to seem like such a good idea: It’s early in the spring, there’s nothing in the garden yet to pick and eat, so why not go out into the woods and look for edibles that are growing wild?
You get to enjoy an early harvest; you get to eat something rare and exotic and delicious; and you get to feel like a serious woodsy outdoors-type person who likes to hike, even on cold wet (horrible) days.
Because you really couldn’t drag me into the woods at this time of the year without some kind of serious incentive. The earliest incentive of this sort is the wild leek, known as a ramp.
I went out foraging for ramps last Friday with Lawrence Davis Hollander, a Sheffield resident and ethnobotanist. This is shocking and exciting news. First of all, people who know where to find edible forest forage almost never share their favorite forage sites.
And Hollander is more protective of the wild ramps than the average forager. He is on a crusade of sorts, and is determined to convince people that they are over-collecting their wild forest foods. If some restraint isn’t shown, and soon, he warns that it might not be long before the ramps, the morels, the fiddlehead ferns will go the way of wild ginger, the dodo and cheap gasoline.
Americans famously do not do well with abundance. And ramps do give the impression that they are and always will be available in endless quantities.
Perhaps they will be, Hollander says. But not if people tramp through the woods pulling the plants up by their roots and grabbing more than they need.
If you go foraging he beseeches you to think about the health of the species: Do not cut more than, say, a quarter of the ramp leaves that you find (most of the plants have two leaves; just cut one, so the plant can still perform photosynthesis). And do not pull up the bulbs; this will allow the plants to propagate so that, in time, there will be ever more ramps, not ever fewer.
Needless to say, neither Hollander nor I has any intention of saying where we found our leaks. But once you find some (and they are deliciously oniony and delicate, like very tender scallions) there are many ways you can cook them.
Obviously, they are excellent in a saute (try mixing them in with some spinach). They make an exquisite substitute for scallions in any Japanese broth dishes (such as soup base for hot or cold noodles).
And this wild ramp flan, adapted from a Jacques Pépin onion custard, is beautiful to look at and deliciously creamy to eat, with an oniony little kick at the end. It’s also very easy to make. You can cook it in a souffle dish instead of ramekins, if you prefer. And if you have a fully stocked bar, you can use dry vermouth to cook the ramps, instead of water.
Wild ramp flan
Serves four as a side dish
2 tablespoons unsalted butter; 3 cups wild leeks (ramps) cleaned and cut into 1-inch pieces; 1 cup water; 3 large eggs, beaten; 1/2 cup heavy cream; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper; very fine zest of half a lemon
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter four 1/2-cup ramekins and set them in a baking dish that holds them snugly. In a large skillet, melt the butter. Add the leeks and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about five minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over moderately low heat until the leeks are very tender, about 20 minutes. Uncover and boil over high heat until any excess liquid has evaporated, about two minutes.
Whisk the eggs, cream, salt and pepper and combine with the leeks and any remaining liquid in a food processor. Puree, and then stir in the lemon zest. Pour the onion custard into the prepared ramekins. Add enough tepid water to the baking dish to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until almost firm but still slightly loose in the center; if the water in the baking dish simmers, add a few ice cubes to cool it down.
Remove the ramekins from the water bath and wipe the bottoms and sides dry. Run a small, sharp knife around each flan to loosen it, then invert the flans onto plates.
Serve right away.
© Copyright 2011 by TCExtra.com
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