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Asparagus with Wild Ramps
By Charlie Burke

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My wife, Joanne, recently brought our friend, Ella, a bunch of just picked
asparagus and returned with a bunch of wild ramps Ella had picked on the
banks of the Connecticut River in Norwich, Vermont.

Ramps grow from southern Canada to the mid Atlantic states and are members
of the onion family. They are slender with a white bulb, purple-red stems and
flat, dark leaves which resemble those of Lilies of the Valley. They have the
scent of wild onion, which is lacking in the poisonous Lilly of the Valley.
Unlike the fibrous leaves of leeks, ramp leaves are soft and can be added to
salads or cooked briefly. I had seen ramps in specialty stores and occasionally
in restaurants, but this is the first time I had had them in my hands.

It seemed like a perfect pairing to cook them with our asparagus for dinner,
and I found that the bulb and stem cooked in the same time as the asparagus,
with the more tender leaves being added a minute or so before finishing the
sauté. The flavor of ramps is sharper and more complex than scallions or
spring onions, but both can be substituted in this recipe. The difference in
appearance of the ramps is easily seen in the photograph above.

Because I did not want to obscure the fresh flavors of the ramps and asparagus,
I did not add bacon or pancetta to the preparation, but a quarter cup of either,
browned at the start of the recipe, would work well.  In Appalachia, where
ramps are commonly cooked in the spring, bacon is usually part of the recipes.

Two servings:

8-10 stalks of fresh asparagus
4- 6 ramps
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or butter
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Remove the woody bases of the asparagus and cut stalks into 2 inch pieces.
Trim the roots from the ramps and cut them just above the bulbs, leaving the
bulbs whole. Slice the stems into 2 inch pieces up to the leaves. Roll the leaves
and slice across at ½ inch intervals. Set the leaves aside.

Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, and, when hot, add the olive oil or
butter. Sauté the asparagus and ramps until the asparagus is bright green and
slightly softened; do not overcook. Add the reserved leaves and toss to mix
over the heat for about one minute. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve
immediately, drizzling with a small volume of uncooked extra virgin olive
oil.        
Sautéing asparagus is my favorite preparation. It takes minutes to cook it to a
tender but slightly firm texture, preserving flavor which leeches out into the
water if asparagus is boiled. It was a special treat to have ramps, but versatile
asparagus prepared this ways goes very well with garlic and other members of
the onion family, as well and with mushrooms and even fiddle heads. A light
squeeze of lemon juice at the end is optional in any preparation.

The season for fresh, local asparagus is all too short, so seek some from local
farms and farmers markets. Sautéing is easy, but also try them on the grill,
where the smokiness adds a new dimension. Asparagus is a large spring crop
in New England, so there is no reason to buy any produced on distant
industrial farms and shipped over great distances.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at
Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.
 
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