Here’s how spring really starts.
Since our days frequenting the massive farmers’ market that rings Madison’s Capitol Square, buying and preparing spring-time foods has become an annual ritual at our house. It’s my favorite time of year for eating, and I’m always a little sad when it’s over.
Before our time in Madison, I had known about asparagus but knew nothing about how it grew and when it arrived.
I don’t know that I had ever noticed rhubarb until our downstairs neighbors ran up the back steps one evening to hand over small ramekins full of rhubarb crumble.
As for ramps, I had purchased them only once before. Then I forgot about them until their rotting, pungent stench wafted across the kitchen each time we opened the fridge. So I bought them last week with a renewed sense of commitment.
I’ve been volunteering every Thursday at our local co-op market. It’s an extraordinary consumer-producer co-op just closing out a successful first year in operation. One of the most fascinating things about it is that it does not just attract ex-hippies, locavores, foodies, and new greeniacs. It’s also draws Amish/Mennonite people, crunchy cons (“grown with God’s love”), and the increasing number of average consumers interested in “local,” “healthy,” and “green.”
Since late February, the farmers have been supplying us with delicious greens and some other things they’ve been able to grow in their high tunnels and greenhouses, along with bread, yogurt, cheese, eggs, and meats.
Last week I was greeted by the sight of rhubarb, stinging nettles, sorrel, wild ramps, delicious mixed greens (including baby kale, baby chard, dark mustard), and asparagus.
I’ve also been working a few hours each week on one of the farms that grows and sells these vegetables, so there was an extra thrill to seeing these objects land at the market. I had spent about three hours leaning over and scattering straw to mulch the very large field of asparagus, and I knew the ramps had been foraged up in the woods nearby.
I cook a lot–five to six nights a week–but it’s only recently that I have started to break away from strictly following recipes for our meals. Things really came together with the ramps. After consulting a few ramp recipes online, including from Epicurious.com (an invaluable asset at our house), I mostly struck out on my own.
Wild Ramp Cream Sauce with Pasta
2-3 T olive oil
1 bunch of ramps, chopped, including the greens
1 cup vegetable stock*
1/2 cup cream
1 box of penne or other pasta that will catch the sauce and ramps
1. Set pot of water to boil, add pasta and cook until al dente.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven on medium-high heat.
3. Add the ramps and let them cook until soft and aromatic.
4. Pour in stock and cream. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes or so to reduce the cream and stock. Stir occasionally and don’t reduce so much that there’s not enough sauce to cover your amount of pasta.
5. When pasta is al dente, drain and add to sauce. Cook pasta in sauce for a few minutes so it absorbs the flavors.
*Good vegetable stock is a must. I recently made a double batch (about 12 C) and then put it in the freezer, divided into two containers. It probably changes the flavor, but whenever I need some I thaw it in the microwave, pour off the amount I need, and then freeze it again. I have typically heeded the advice to make stock with a tripartite foundation–carrot, onion, and celery. But I recently drew from Mark Bittman’s One Hour Vegetable Stock recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which adds potato and soy sauce (I don’t think I had mushrooms or parsley on hand). It was delicious and seriously improves the flavor of the dishes it ends up in.
It sounds almost too simple, but this recipe unlocked and accentuated the flavor of the ramps–essence of spring in the woods–and let it flow. I tried it a second time with just a bit of spinach I had to use up, and the spinach completely sucked away the flavor the ramps.