The first time I bought ramps was last spring. Before then, I had only known them as a side dish that would show up on restaurant menus in March and April.
I had just been offered a job as an editor at Modern Baking magazine, and I was reeling from the excitement (and the frustration of not being able to publicly celebrate, since I hadn’t yet told my boss). It was one of those chilly yet blindingly sunny early spring days, when it feels as though it must be 30 degrees colder in the shade. Sean was out of town, so I called my friend Katie, told her the good news and asked if she and her boyfriend Paul would like to come for dinner.
“Whatchya makin’, Marge?” she prodded.
“Something with fresh shelled peas!” I cried. I had been thinking about peas all day.
An hour later, I clambered off the bus at Whole Foods and headed straight for the produce department, only to find that there wasn’t a fresh pea in sight. But wedged somewhere between the green onions and radishes was a massive stack of ramps. Not entirely sure what my plan was but feeling up for a challenge, I grabbed two big bunches and headed home. I did a quick online search and found a recipe for ramp pesto. Since I didn’t have any pine nuts or walnuts, I decided I’d change it up a bit. I briefly boiled the ramps and shocked them in ice water to soften them slightly. Then I cooked spaghetti in the same water I’d used for the ramps. I puréed the ramps with olive oil, butter, a little lemon juice, Parmesan cheese and some of the starchy pasta water.
We toasted my new gig and ate the bright, spring-inspired pasta dish in the waning evening light. I was happy I’d taken a chance on ramps that day. And after months of writing articles about marketing campaigns for supermarkets, I was ready to get back into food writing full time.
The next morning, I called my boss and told him I’d accepted a position at a magazine for bakery owners. He was quiet for a minute, and my heart started to race.
“I’m never eating a cupcake again,” he said.
This ramp pesto recipe is much more of a straightforward pesto than my improvised pasta sauce above. I rough chopped the ramps and ground them in a food processor with toasted pine nuts. I then streamed in olive oil and lemon juice, then seasoned with salty Parmesan, a little salt and lots of black pepper. Some people swear by quickly boiling (or blanching) the ramps first to sustain their vibrant green color and cut a bit of their sharpness, but I think this sauce tastes best when the ramps are left raw. Their mild, slightly grassy onion flavor lends itself well to a pesto-type preparation, and allows you to omit the garlic.
You can certainly switch out the ramps for basil, arugula or roasted bell peppers, but I like to use ramps while they’re in season. Much like dream jobs, ramps are available only briefly before someone else scoops them up.
2 bunches ramps, cleaned, stems trimmed and outer or bruised leaves removed
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt and pepper, to taste
Method: Roughly chop the ramps. Add them to a food processor along with the pine nuts, and blend on low until they form a coarse purée. You might have to scrape down the sides a few times with a spatula to get everything chopped up.
Add the lemon juice, and with the food processor running on low, slowly stream in the olive oil and blend until it forms a paste.
Remove the blade, and fold in the Parmesan cheese to taste. Add salt, if needed, and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
This recipe makes enough for pesto pasta for 4. You can also fold it into scrambled eggs, drizzle it on grilled meat, fish or vegetables, stir a little into vegetable soup just before serving, or smear it on a sandwich.
To store the pesto, place in an airtight container and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. It should keep for about 1 week.