Asparagus, peas and strawberries. That's what usually comes to mind when most of us think of springtime fare. But there are also highly anticipated wild things from the woods this time of year, like morels and ramps. The latter are actually wild leeks (Allium tricoccum); they resemble scallions, but have broader, lily-like leaves. Their assertive garlicky, onion-y flavor is reason enough to celebrate spring, which many communities do--especially in the woodsy parts of Appalachia.
Ramps are early risers. In fact, they often peek through winter's final snowfall. Ramps flourish through Memorial Day, but tend to toughen as summer continues. The solution? Forage (or purchase) now, and if you have more than you can use within 4 or 5 days, clean, blanch, drain, wrap tightly and freeze the excess.
These funky wild leeks are one of wine writer Alice Feiring's favorite foods. Although Feiring makes her living from writing about the grape (her blog, www.alicefeiring.com was nominated for a Beard Award in 2006) she is a self-proclaimed foraging junkie. And ramps, of course, are one of her favorite finds. She resides in New York City, but friends upstate are more than happy to be her host and to indulge in her spontaneous ramp creations. 'There's something so thrilling about foraging; it's like getting a gift from the forest,' says Feiring, author of the recently published, The Battle for Wine & Love (or how I saved the world from Parkerization). Feiring won a Beard award in 2001 and could be up for another with her new book.
One of Feiring's favorite ways to prepare the wild vegetable is in a country-style gratin. With it, she likes to pour a gutsy, young Saint-Joseph from Pierre Gonon, made 100% Syrah grapes harvested by hand--just like the ramps! 'You want to choose an earthy wine to match this dish. A Cabernet Franc could work, too. I don't recommend wines with massive structure, like a Hermitage or Côte Rôtie,' says Feiring.
If you can't go foraging--or if your local farmers' market doesn't have ramps--you can order them through Amazon.com or primiziefinefoods.com. (If the Primizie website doesn't have ramps, call and ask when they expect the harvest to arrive.)
You can never use too many ramps or too much cheese in this dish. Adjust quantities up or down, depending on your taste.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a side dish.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound fresh, young ramps, trimmed and washed
Pinch of red pepper flakes, optional
½ pound grated Gruyere or extra-sharp Cheddar (or, use a mixture of Gruyere and Cheddar, about 2 cups grated cheese total)
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes (choose potatoes of similar size), scrubbed but not peeled
About 2 cups half-and-half
Leaves from 3 springs fresh thyme, or about 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
• Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the ramps and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, about 7 minutes. Set aside.
• Mix the cheeses in a bowl and set aside 1 cup of the cheese mixture for the topping.
• Slice the potatoes into thin rounds using a mandoline or a sharp knife. Set aside.
• Oil a 9- by 12-inch heavy baking dish, preferably glazed earthenware or cast enamel.
• Arrange about one-fourth of the potatoes in a layer on the bottom of the oiled baking dish; season lightly with salt and pepper. Place about one-third of the ramps on top of the potatoes, sprinkle with some of the cheese, and drizzle with 3 to 4 tablespoons of the half-and-half. Repeat twice, finishing with a layer of potatoes.
• Pour the remaining half-and-half over the potato mixture, adding just enough to reach the top layer of potatoes.
• Add the reserved cheese, cover with foil, and bake about one hour or until the potatoes are tender.
• Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees F, remove the foil, and bake uncovered for 10 minutes or until the top begins to turn golden brown.