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.
Ramp Fried Rice with Cha Siu
You can buy cha siu at the same Chinese delis where you buy roast duck and soy sauce chicken. In New York City, Great NY Noodletown on the Bowery is a good source but nothing compares to homemade barbecued pork. I have the recipe is in all my cookbooks because it’s easy and far superior to anything you can buy. If you cannot buy cha siu you can make the fried rice with smoked ham or roast chicken.
1 bunch ramps, about 4- 5 ounces
2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 cup 1/4-inch diced parsnips
3 cups cold cooked long grain rice
1/2 pound cha siu (bbq pork), diced
1 tablespoon soy sauce or the juices from the cha siu
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1. Trim root ends from ramps and slip off outer skins if loose. Cut off leaves from white bulbs attached to slender stems.
Carefully wash ramps –this is easier said than done. There is lots of mud that gets caught in the crevices of the bulb. Plunge the ramps in a tub of cold water to dislodge as much dirt and mud as possible. Do this several times and then dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with kitchen towels. Cut bulb and stem into 1/4-inch dice to make about 1/3 cup. Cut remaining leaves into 1/2-inch pieces to make about 2 packed cups.
2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 2 teaspoons of the oil making sure the bottom of the wok is completely coated in oil. Add the beaten eggs, and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, tilting the pan so that the egg covers the surface as thinly as possible to make a pancake. When the bottom is just beginning to brown and the pancake is just set, using a metal spatula flip the pancake and allow it to set, about 5 seconds before transferring it to a cutting board. Cool before cutting the pancake into bite-sized pieces.
3. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil, add the ginger and diced ramp bulb and stems, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Add the parsnips and stir-fry 1 minutes. Add the ramp greens and stir-fry 30 seconds or until ramps are bright green and just limp. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, add the rice, and stir-fry 1 minute breaking up the rice with the spatula. Add the cha siu and stir-fry 1 minute or until rice is heated through. Add the soy sauce, sprinkle on the salt and pepper, and the reserved eggs, and toss to combine. Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as part of a multicourse meal. Makes about 6 cups