Category Archives: ramps

Chinese Ramps

At the height of my recent Michigan ramp delirium, I found myself at the Marquette airport clutching a duffel bag stuffed with ramps. “Would you like to carry that on?” inquired the checker.

A quick calculus in my ramp-besotted head. “Um, I guess so.” I wasn’t letting go.

“Don’t let me talk you into it. We can check it.”

Was this some sort of double-speak? Were they toying with me? More to the point, did my breath stink of contraband? “Yes, I’ll carry.” I casually chatted up the security personnel as the x-ray attendant scanned my bag.

“Have a good flight.”

Phew! In the clear. When I got my booty safely home I already knew what the menu would be. A recipe was waiting in my in-box, compliments of my friends and ramp initiators, Russ and Carol. They like to call this dish Slippery Chicken and Ramps, which strikes me as a good name for a meal that was finessed through various checkpoints. I rounded out the menu with a simple Drunken Clams with Ramps.

Slippery Chicken and Ramps

1 lb chicken breast or thighs, cut into thin 2-inch strips
1 tbsp corn starch
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
2-3 tbsp peanut oil
1 heaping tbsp diced garlic
1 heaping tbsp diced ginger
1 tbsp fermented black beans
1 thick handful fresh ramps
splash Chinese cooking wine

1. Mix corn starch, sesame oil, and soy sauces together into marinade. Stir in chicken pieces and set aside for at least an hour.

2. Cut off ramp bulbs and separate from green leaves. Thinly slice bulbs. Roughly chop leaves.

3. Heat 1 to 2 tbsp peanut oil in wok. Saute chicken over medium-high heat until barely cooked through. Don’t overcook. Remove from wok.

4. Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in wok and saute garlic, ginger, and black beans until fragrant, a minute or so. Add sliced ramp bulbs and cook until translucent.

5. Deglaze wok with a splash of Chinese cooking wine. Add remaining chopped ramps, which will reduce like spinach.

6. Increase heat to high and toss in chicken. Stir quickly to mix, then serve.

The name is apt. Slippery Chicken, thanks to the marinade and careful cooking, should be velvety tender. In fact, you’ll most often see it called Velvet Chicken, with some recipes using egg whites to achieve this effect. I found the mixture of oil, corn starch, and soy sauce to be plenty slippery without the use of egg whites. You can spice up this dish with Sichuan peppercorns, chili paste, black vinegar, or other typical Sichuan ingredients.

Drunken Clams with Ramps

40 Manila clams
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 heaping tbsp diced garlic
1 heaping tbsp diced ginger
1 handful fresh ramps
1 cup Chinese rice wine
1 tsp aji-mirin
1 tsp sesame oil

1. Cut off ramp bulbs and separate from green leaves. Thinly slice bulbs. Roughly chop leaves.

2. Heat peanut oil in wok. Over medium heat, saute garlic, ginger, and sliced ramp bulbs, until ramps soften, careful not to burn garlic and ginger, a minute or two.

3. Add rice wine and aji-mirin, raise heat, and bring to boil.

4. Stir in clams and cover.

5. When clams begin to open, stir in chopped ramp leaves and cover again. Cook another minute until clams fully open.

Serve Slippery Chicken and Drunken Clams with rice.

By now it’s late in the season even for Northern Michigan ramps. File these recipes away for next year. And speaking of next year’s ramp harvest—and hopefully the harvests of many years to come—it’s worth remembering that ramps are a wild resource that shouldn’t be over-exploited. There’s concern in some parts of the country, notably the Smoky Mountains of Southern Appalachia, that ramps are on the decline. The Mushroom Forager blog pointed out this recent article in the New York Times, “When Digging for Ramps Goes Too Far.” Choose your patches wisely and exercise restraint.

On Ramp

My friends Russell and Carol left Seattle several years ago when Russ, a Blake scholar and artist, got a teaching gig at Northern Michigan University. Carol, also an artist, had been a cook at the first good restaurant I ever ate at in Seattle, the Dahlia Lounge. If you guessed that I visited their home in Marquette because I missed Carol’s food, you wouldn’t be far off. But mostly I miss the banter with these two old friends and this trip had been a long time coming.

Now that I’ve been to the Northern Woods of Michigan, all I can say is I’m going back. I fell hard for the place, with its woods, lakes, and friendly people.

My approach to Marquette on the Upper Peninsula was less than encouraging: fog, drizzle, temps in the forties. Might as well have been back in Seattle! But over a long weekend the state slowly and quietly began to reveal its charms to me. It must be a magical place to strap on the cross-country boards in winter. In spring, after a hard, snow-filled winter, the reawakening of the woods is palpable in a way that nearly overwhelms the senses. Warblers singing, wildflowers blooming, all sorts of trees leafing out against the backdrop of an azure sky.

Those hardwood forests that seem to go on forever are a big part of what attracts me to Michigan. I grew up with hardwoods in New England. Oak, maple, birch, and so on. But there’s also a long list of trees I never learned as a kid, and they’re still a chore to identify now: beech, gum, hornbeam, hickory, and many more. And beneath the trees grows a crazy-quilt of greenery. I thought we had a monopoly on trilliums here in the Pacific Northwest until stepping foot on Michigan soil. There were Dutchman’s breeches and jack-in-the-pulpits and trout lilies (pictured), plus scores of other plants I didn’t recognize. Wild raspberry everywhere. And perhaps more ubiquitous than any other plant: wild leeks—a native allium sometimes known by the name ramp (Allium tricoccum). Everywhere you looked, you saw this wild gourmet delicacy, growing in enormous patches that carpeted the woods. You smelled them, too.

The ramps appear as the hardwood forests open their leaves and the first neo-tropical warblers arrive with their splashes of unlikely color and insistent songs. Up and down the Appalachian Mountains, small rural communities honor this edible plant that heralds spring with festivals and feasts, such as the Feast of the Ramson in Richwood, West Virginia, where ramp culture reaches its zenith. In Northern Michigan, the ramp almost seems taken for granted, so common is it—and the locals are busy gearing up for morels anyway.

Hey, no problem. I’ll pick a few of your ramps. They’re a novelty for me since they don’t grow west of the Great Plains. The picking is easy, if a bit tedious. The ramp bulbs are fairly shallow, though firmly rooted. After a soil-loosening rainstorm is a good time to go picking. You can use a shovel or iron to further loosen the dirt or even slide a finger down the stalk and into the ground. Ramps of good cooking size can be snapped by hand where the roots meet the bulb.

Once you get your catch home, wash the ramps under a tap and slide the outer membrane off the bulb. This will remove most of the dirt. Slice off dirt-encrusted roots with a paring knife.

As for flavor, you often hear that ramps are like a cross between garlic and onions, but I prefer to think of them as hillbilly leeks with an earthy twang. Like cultivated leeks, you’re wise to use the white and green parts in different ways. Generally speaking, the white bulbs are best chopped and sauteed until at least translucent (like scallion bulbs) while the green leaves can be chopped and added to a dish near the end and cooked down (like spinach). We ate ramps all kinds of ways: simply chopped and sauteed over wild whitefish fillets; with eggs; in a soup of cherrystone clams, vegetables, and chicken stock. We ate ramps like we would never eat them again—which was true, in a way, for me…excepting that batch I smuggled onto the plane… [to be continued]