From time to time, people tell me that they don’t like ramps or that they’re bored with them. I suppose I can understand not caring for ramps’ assertive garlic aroma, but I can’t really see professing boredom with something that’s available for just a few weeks a year.
For my part, I always look forward to their annual appearance at our local farmers markets. This wild plant is one of the earliest signs of spring, along with trees in blossom, local asparagus and wishing you’d worn a lighter jacket.
Jackie and I have a number of favorite ramp dishes that we regularly revive — risotto and other rice preparations top the list — and we do our best to add something new to the repertory each year. This year, our first bunch of young ramps became a delicious sauce/accompaniment for skate wing, which caught my fancy at the market one day. However powerful ramps may smell, they become more delicate when cooked, and while retaining their character, they need not overwhelm ingredients such as rice and milder fish. Skate, of course, has a lot of personality anyway and can stand up to fairly stiff competition. Think of its classic accompaniment of capers and lots of lemon.
Here, to showcase the first ramps we had this season, I used only four flavors: fish, ramps, lemon and butter.
Almost invariably, I cook ramp bulbs and leaves separately. Depending on their size, the bulbs need several minutes to become tender and sweet, while the leaves collapse quickly in a hot pan. Separating the two is not an onerous task, and it gives you an opportunity to examine each ramp — not because they may harbor bugs but because, like all members of the allium family, they have a complex structure and are beautiful to look at and gratifying to handle. Once you’ve cooked the leaves, it is sometimes nice to puree them for use as a sauce or to add lots of flavor and color to a dish like risotto.
Having cut the ramp bulbs from the leaves, I trimmed the root end and used my fingers to strip away the thin outermost layer of each bulb, then washed everything carefully. I cut each bulb across into three or four segments (for other dishes I might have left them whole). I tore the leaves off their central veins, which can be a little fibrous for a home blender, then stir-fried them in a scant tablespoon of butter for a minute or so, until darkened in color and limp. I pureed them along with whatever liquid was in the pan until smooth, adding a tablespoon of water to help the blender do its work.
I glazed the bulbs, seasoned with salt and pepper, in a teaspoon of butter and a splash of water. This took two or three minutes; the ramp bulbs were tender but not browned. (All of this ramp activity can take place a couple of hours in advance.)
When it was dinner time, I reheated the ramp leaf puree, seasoned it with salt (no pepper, please), swirled in a scant tablespoon of butter and finished it with a tablespoon of lemon juice; I reheated the glazed ramp bulbs and adjusted the seasoning.
Over medium-high heat, I pan-fried the fish (seasoned and lightly floured) in clarified butter. You could also use a neutral oil — or bacon fat, which would change the dish but would be very good. (If you are using thicker fish such as sea bass, you may wish to brown the skin on top of the stove and complete the cooking in a hot oven, skin-side down.)
To serve, I divided the sauce evenly between two warmed dinner plates, set a piece of fish on the sauce and topped it with ramp bulbs. We ate this with steamed potatoes, roughly crushed with butter — you could use extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice if you preferred — and well seasoned with salt and plenty of pepper.
The bulbs were subtle in flavor — a contrast with ramps’ aroma when uncooked — and the bright green puree, softened with butter and jazzed with lemon, made a sauce that would cure the boredom of even the most jaded ramp-skeptic.