This is the first installment of a weekly place-based Omer series. In this year of Shmita, it's my goal every week of the Omer (the counting period from Passover to Shavuot) to do something that helps me connect more deeply to place, and then write about it. Read the post on Passover and Place for a more detailed introduction and some additional resources!
Week One of the Omer*
Essential Concept: Connection / Emanation
Day of Creation: Yom HaRishon (1st) – Light
Sefirah Connection: Chesed (Loving Kindness)
Essential Question(s): What is special about this place?
*these connections come from Mitsui Design's Place-Based Omer chart, downloadable here*
My wife and I, along with our pup, Norman Jellybean, spent the first few days of Pesach (Passover) this year with her family in Cleveland. Norman loves visiting Cleveland because a) he gets a real yard to play in; b) he gets to (try to) steal Abby's stuffed animals; and c) Cleveland has an amazing system of MetroParks that are super accessible from the East Cleveland suburbs where Abby's family lives.
One of our favorite trailheads is at Look About Lodge, located in South Chagrin Reservation, a system of parks threaded by the Chagrin River. We love to venture off-trail to explore some of the smaller Chagrin tributary systems, and as Norman happily romped around I was thrilled to discover . . . RAMPS! Ramps everywhere! Like manna in the wilderness, as far as the eye could see! Ok, that's an exaggeration. But they were growing throughout the entire floodplain in beautiful thick clumps.
(note: I didn't have a camera with me, so the photo below is not mine, but they looked similar)
Photo credit: The Foraged Foodie
Ramps (Allium tricoccum), aka wild leeks, are an edible spring ephemeral that only show up for a few weeks, right around Pesach-time. I've been told you can grow them, but not easily, and people literally go nuts over these tasty spring onions. We're talking ramp festivals, restaurants featuring ramp-based menus, the works. And rightfully so - they're best harvested in the wild*, the whole plant is edible, they're easy to use, and they have a lovely and delicate flavor somewhere in the middle of wild garlic, scallions, and garlic scapes. They sell for big bucks at the farmer's market, too. On my romp with Norman, I harvested about as much as I could carry in my sweatshirt, and then returned with my wife and parents-in-law the next day (plus Norman, of course) to harvest some more, and we had a great time feeling the warmth and color of spring finally returning.
It's a lovely maybe-not-such-a-coincidence that ramps are in season around Pesach-time. Wild leeks are thought to have originated in ancient Egypt, and, in fact, get a shout out from whiny Israelites in Bamidbar 11:5 - We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic - and in the Mishna: Seder Zerai'm: Kilaayim 3. Some Sephardic families use leeks or green onions as maror and even "whip" each other during Dayenu in reference to slavery and the verse from Bamidbar.
I experienced enough slavery for the year while my father-in-law and I sobbed our eyes out while grating horseradish root for the maror. So as we celebrated our freedom in Cleveland, I was excited to give a try of freshly picked and cleaned ramps to the more adventurous friends and family visiting for seder, and sent a few baggies home with those who wanted them.
Back in Brooklyn, we still had tons of ramps that traveled home with us. While I wouldn't quickly tire of scrambled ramps n' eggs, food is a great way to (re)experience the memory of place, and I was excited to preserve the flavor of these special Pesach-in-Cleveland ramps to enjoy for many many months after harvesting season. What followed was a full afternoon of ramps preservation three ways: pickled (vinegar and laco-fermented); buttered; and pesto-ed.
Processing the ramps
If, like me, you kept the ramps stored dirty (with the soil only shaken off, not washed, so that they stay longer), you'll have some prepping to do first. I kept a bag for scraps next to the bag with my unwashed ramps, and a large mixing bowl in the sink. I used kitchen shears to clip off any roots still attached, and then soaked the trimmed ramps in cold water. This removed most of the residual soil. After clipping all my ramps, I washed off any additional soil, and removed the outermost sheath if it had gotten papery (like the outer layers of an onion).
While you're doing this, start heating a large pot of water towards a boil to save some time later when it's time to blanch.
Post-trim and wash, I had a giant bowl of ramps! If you've ever bought the little bundles of ramps at the farmers market at something like $5 per bundle of 4-5 ramps, this will be a really exciting moment.
Next, I separated the leaves from the stalks/bulbs. Depending on how you're using them, you don't necessarily need to do this -- for example, roasting or stir-frying, which is delicious. But I was going to pickle the majority of the bulbs, so went ahead and separated all of them.
Next, I blanched the bulbs first, then the leaves, in my pot of boiling water. I forgot to put salt in, and I don't think it made much of a difference, but you're supposed to. I also left the bulbs in for probably 10-15 seconds too long, so they got a bit softer than I meant for them too. Whoops. The leaves went much better - stick to 20 seconds in boiling water, then immediately into an ice water bath.
I then separated my ramp bulbs into two jars. I probably could have gotten them all into the larger one, but I wanted to vinegar-pickle one batch and lacto-ferment the other. I also got my vinegar-brine mix going on the stove.
Once my vinegar brine had simmered for five minutes, I poured it into the larger jar. Meanwhile, I mixed up a simple lacto-fermenting salt brine. I kept this one simple: about a teaspoon of kosher salt, plus a pickling spice mix I had sitting around. I filled half the jar with the brine left from the batch of dilly-beans Abby and I had just finished (you don't have to do this, but I figured I might as well jump-start the fermenting with some pre-vetted lactobacillus), and topped it off with cold water.
The vinegar pickles were set aside to cool. They're ready as soon as they're cool enough to eat, and store for several months in the fridge. Super-tasty, although the brine recipe is a bit sweet for my liking. The lacto-pickles stay out with the lid loosely covering it -- put the jar on a plate or bowl to catch any liquid that bubbles over. These took about 5 days to ferment, and they are delicious.
Ramp Compound Butter
Up next, ramp compound butter. I mostly followed this recipe from Serious Eats, although I used four sticks of butter plus a bit more ghee to fill it out, rather than the 4 lbs specified in the recipe. Either it's a typo or they had a LOT more ramps to use than me.
I used probably half to two-thirds my ramp leaves, plus a few bulbs for texture, diced them up, and mixed them into the butter with lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and thyme. This stuff came out ridiculously good, if very lemony.
I re-used the butter wrappers and then filled a few small tupperwares with the rest. Most of these went into the freezer for future use. I tossed some breakfast potatoes in some the next day before baking and they were, not surprisingly, delicious. The lemon-garlic flavor should also be really good for fish.
Finally, I prepared my ramp pesto. I didn't have any pine nuts or walnuts around, so I used almonds, plus salt, pepper, lemon juice, lemon zest, and olive oil. I didn't really use any single recipe, just googled around to see a few recipes for basic suggestions.
I used my Ninja-blender for this, thinking I would save some clean-up since the big food processor is always kind of a pain to clean and the Ninja is usually powerful enough. Next time I would probably just use the food processor, or at least put the almonds in before the ramps.
As it was, the Ninja had a hard time processing this - the almonds all got really thick as they formed a paste, which clogged the blades up, and it was a pain to get it all to mix up.
In the end, it all worked out! I got a solid amount of pesto too. I kept it non-dairy, and it's still delicious.
So there you have it -- the taste of Pesach season in Cleveland preserved for months to come! What else is freedom than the opportunity to romp through the woods with your pup, dig in the dirt for delicious edibles, and then take it all home for a full afternoon of cooking and preservation? Well, if you're my wife, maybe it's letting your husband do all these things and then enjoying the ramp omelets and ramp butter potatoes he makes for Sunday brunch.
What are you favorite foods to preserve or favorite wild edibles to forage for? Do you find freedom in these experiences of nature, food, and place?
Stay tuned for the next post on our excursion to Forest Park on the Brooklyn/Queens border!
*If you come across ramps in the wild, hurrah! Please note, however:
- Ramps have a couple look alikes, namely Lily of the Valley, which is poisonous. Only ramps smell and taste of pungent onion-garlic, however, and usually have a purple-red tint to the outer sheaves along the lower bulb.
- It is possible to over-harvest ramps, and areas where this has happened have been very slow to recover. The best way to harvest is to clip or cut the bulb just above the roots, so that it can grow back. Try not to take an entire clump - instead, select the best few, and move on to the next spot.
- Ramps keep best if you don't wash them until you're ready to use them