Every year, as the first hints of spring begin to appear, I start looking for ramps at the local farmer’s market. Here in the East, they’re the definitive sign that winter is truly behind us. In New York City, ramps are expensive, sold in tiny, precious bundles for about $20/pound. A scarce commodity, they’re pricey because they’re foraged (not grown in farm fields or gardens) and their season is super-short. Ramps (Allium trioccum) are also called wild leeks, but that doesn’t do them justice. My friend Kathy Gunst, in her wonderful cookbook Notes from a Maine Kitchen, describes the way ramps combine the taste of leeks with other members of the Allium family—“a clove of garlic, a sweet Vidalia-type onion, a scallion, and a shallot,” all blended together and retaining “the single most distinguishing flavor element from each.”
Ramps don’t really look like leeks, either. To me they resemble lilies-of-the-valley—another undeniable sign of spring in these parts. They have a slender white bulb that shades to a delicate burgundy stem for two to three inches and then unfurls into broad green leaves. They are simply beautiful.
Last weekend I was down for the count with the unbelievable combination of hay fever and the flu. Between my sneezing, my itchy, watery eyes, and my achy bones, I was a mess. The moment I felt a little better, on Wednesday, I headed to the farmer’s market to treat myself to some ramps. I’d been thinking about them all weekend, having had my first taste of this season’s crop the week before. Now I was in the mood for a comfort food stir-fry.
I should say that at the end of last year’s ramp season, my friend George Chew told me that “ramp fried rice made with cha siu is the bomb!” The instant he said the words I could just taste how delicious ramps would be in fried rice with chunks of tender, succulent pork (cha siu is Cantonese barbecued pork) and an egg crepe. I’d been waiting to try this for nearly a year. I added my own twist with minced ginger and some diced parsnips, and finally found the taste of spring I’d been lusting for. It’s a rich, decadent fried rice that’s impossible to stop eating. And, my appetite restored and my head cleared, I am ready to run right back to the farmer’s market for more ramps, to savor that fleeting taste til it’s time to wait another year.