The first green that I see each year on my trips into the woods is a waxy looking leaf with pointed ends and a purplish stalk that ends in a bulb firmly rooted in the ground. Wild leeks or ramps as they are called in our area of the country are a sign that spring has finally committed to being here. When my cook's brain focuses on spring menus, it is filled with thoughts of ramps, morel mushrooms, lamb, rainbow trout, asparagus and fresh herbs. Spring time foods are the best representation of the color green that I know of, embodying all that is fresh and new, they taste how they look.
Ramps are not like morels in their scarcity. The woods are full of them and they are easily spotted from a long distance away. My 2-year-old demonstrated this perfectly yesterday. While on one of our father son walks in the woods (avoiding trails and pathways at all costs) I decided to teach him what to look for and how to pick just the tender tops right now for our dinner at home. He proceeded to eat a leaf for every one that he put in our tattered basket. By the time I realized just how much raw forest floor food he had eaten, his face and hands had become filthy with dirt and leaves which would eventually wash away, but there was no wiping that grin off of his face. I saw firsthand his recognition of the meanings of good and simple food as I cleaned him up and tried to think of how I was going to get the stench of onions out of his clothes before his mother got her hands on him.
Straightforward cooking techniques including grilling, steaming, sauteing, or raw preparations such as peeling and slicing very thinly and tossing with simple vinaigrettes are the most honest ways to treat the foods of spring. I don't like much contrast in my spring foods. I prefer the ingredients to all work together toward a common end; I want the star to be the main ingredient and everything else to sing back up. Grassy extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, early onions, loads of herbs, eggs, and fresh cracked black pepper are all ingredients that help to brighten and show off what's around them. A note on black pepper; freshly cracked means it entered the pepper mill whole, was ground, and fell directly upon your food. Buying pre-ground pepper robs your taste buds of the sweet and mild flavor that is there before peppercorns oxidize. I would be happy to come over and throw out that red tin of McCormick black pepper for you, but this might be considered inappropriate. I trust you to throw it out yourself and buy whole peppercorns from now on. And nothing says you know what you're doing in the kitchen better than a shiny copper pepper mill in hand and a confident smile on your face.
Should you venture into the woods in search of wild leeks, come prepared with a stout trowel or shovel. Dig down farther that you think the bulbs could possibly be, and return the soil and forest floor back to its original shape before leaving. Wash thoroughly before eating, and understand that they contribute much more of a garlic flavor than most expect.
For our dinner that spring evening we took the ramp tops and cooked them in butter and vinegar, then placed them on top of our first grilled cheese burgers of the season. Simple and straightforward, just the way it should be.
Bradford Lewis is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, has his entry level sommelier certification and has been a professional chef for 15 years. He lives with his wife and son in Charlevoix, Mich. Contact Bradford Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.