Ramps, or Wild Leeks, or, in French, Ail des Bois (Allium tricoccum), are something of a local tragedy. If you've been down to New York at this time of year at any time over the last 10 years you'll know that ramps became the darlings of the new American cuisine sometime in the mid-1990s, if not earlier. This phenomenon ran parallel with the discovery of fiddleheads on the part of American chefs. All of a sudden both ramps and fiddleheads were everywhere, in the city's small markets, like the Union Square Market, and in many of the city's finer restaurants, a sure sign of spring. Ramps have a singular taste, one well worth the hype, but there's no question that part of their appeal had to do with the fact that the season for them was so short--somehow this small window of opportunity made their delicate flavors all the sweeter. Well, the habitat for ramps ranges from northern Georgia all the way up into eastern Canada and the Maritimes, but they grow especially well around maple trees. In other words, this is prime ramps territory. Search the local markets and most of the restaurants in town, however, and you won't find a ramp in sight. The reason? Well, the popularity of ramps in this region nearly brought about their demise--over-harvesting in the 1970s and 1980s placed them in endangered status and in 1995, just at the time that they rose to prominence south of the border, it became illegal to harvest ramps in anything but the smallest quantities. Some restaurants have reintroduced them onto their menus over the years (Les Chèvres has them on the menu with Quebec crayfish at the moment), but they've had to import them from other provinces or even New York and Vermont. Looking for your own? Well, you could just go for a walk in the woods pretty much anywhere in the region (again, anywhere you find maple trees), or you can make a short cross-border hop in search of them. Alternatively, you could place an order with a place like Cookstown Greens ((705) 458-9077) and have them shipped from Ontario.
We've had a tradition of going down to New York to visit our friends and take advantage of "ramps season" for a number of years now. This year we weren't able to make the trip for the first time in a few years, but we were fortunate to find ourselves in possession of a bunch of twelve beautiful specimens from upstate New York. We didn't have many, and we weren't sure we'd get them again this season (we're talking about a 3-4 week season, tops), so we had to be judicious. We decided to have them for breakfast two days running.
Day 1: Michelle found the first of the season's new garlic at Jean-Talon Market.
Earlier in the week we'd bought a hunk of homemade saucisson à l'ail from a local charcuterie. Between the ramps, the new garlic, and the saucisson we had four different forms of garlic (if you include the rather delicious garlic shoot that comes gratis when you buy new garlic), so we created our 4x garlic breakfast with poached eggs: ramps sauteed with new garlic and garlic shoots, served with pan-fried saucisson à l'ail.
This morning we were going to grill our remaining 6 ramps, but our gas canister conked out on us when we lit the fire, so I sauteed the ramps with new garlic and a bit of olive oil, then tossed them with a balsamic vinaigrette with Maldon salt.
More poached eggs, a couple slices of bacon, and a bagel with cream cheese completed the scene.
Ramps: get 'em if/while you can. I can't think of a better excuse for a walk in the woods. But, then again, I'm a bit biased.
Update: we've received reports of ramps having been spotted at Chez Nino at the Jean-Talon market