*Just to be clear, while this is a recipe for ramp pesto, you can use it as the guideline for pretty well any pesto you wish to create.
We grew up with a pretty darn big garden, considering we lived in the suburbs. We had everything you could think of: beans, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, berries of all kinds, kale and chard, peppers, peas, onions, garlic, and the list goes on and on. And then there were the fruit trees: cherry, plum, peach. We did pretty good, considering there were only four in our family. There was a chicken coop out back as well.
But that is how my parents grew up in Europe. They grew what they could, and then brought in slaughtered meat to make sausage etc with. For them, it was a way of life. Nothing romantic or nostalgic about it for them. Just life. I remember my dad telling us the stories about going out into the forest as a young boy to go mushroom picking. Early on they were taught which ones were edible, and which ones to stay away from. Those stories have always had a soft spot in my memory bank. So when I go foraging today, it is always with my father in mind.
Up here in Ontario, Canada, we have to wait a few weeks into April before we really see anything worth pursuing as far as foraging goes. The forests and brush are pretty dormant and quiet under the slush of melting snow till March. But it doesn’t take long, and next thing you know, the ramps are up! The morels and the fiddleheads are never far behind.
Ramps look so much like lily of the valley before the blooms appear. But there is still a difference in the texture of the leaf. But I still think that they may be related in some way. Ramps are also known as wild leeks. And they do have a pleasant onion/garlic taste. The leaf is wonderful on it’s own in a salad, and the white part is what reminds us of anything oniony. There’s a small forest back behind where I volunteer, so in April, I always come prepared: my rain boots, and a jacket that can handle trekking through the underbrush to get to the ramp patches. Because they are up before anything else really green is on the forest floor, it is pretty easy to spot those patches, usually growing in the gnarly roots of trees. A big bowl and a little spade or shovel, and I’m all set.
The challenge is in the actual picking. One, never deplete a patch- aim for only about a third of the plants, evenly taking from different sections of a patch. You want to leave enough that will enable the plant to continue growing for the next year. Each forest will have quite a few patches, so I try to navigate the swampy mess (it always seems to have just rained before I head out on my ramp foraging journey!) moving from patch to patch. Leave enough for the next responsible forager as well. The second challenge is in the actual harvesting of the ramp itself. You want to take your knife/shovel etc and dig deep around the root of a plant, so that when you pick it, the entire plant will ease out of the ground. You don’t want to just be plucking leaves- that precious pure white root is the gold you’re after. So be gentle in the pulling. But if you have loosened the soil and the root from the dirt, it should release pretty easily.
What to do with ramps? First of all, soak and wash them well. Rinse and dry gently in tea towels. And then the sky is the limit. Some people will pickle the root/bulbs. Some will use the leaves in salads or frittatas. I will use both the white and green parts in quiches or savoury pies. In scrambled eggs. And of course, pesto.
Pesto is basically greens, garlic, parmesan, nuts and olive oil. All ground into a rich paste that becomes the perfect condiment to cook with. So here is a basic way to transform a classic basil pesto using ramps. Once you’ve prepared your pesto, you can jar and preserve it, or freeze it in ice cube containers for later use. I always try to have a jar in the fridge. Perfect over pasta, potatoes, thinned out and mixed into dressings or marinades, or even over grilled meats. Take the recipe below and substitute almost any combination of greens and nuts, and you will have your own family pesto to have on hand for all sorts of occasions. Basil or spinach, arugula or mint?! Pine nuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, even walnuts. The combinations are endless! That’s why you will find this in the Pantry section of the blog- just such a basic recipe that you will want to refer to again and again.
Hope you get to forage one day. And if you do, remember, forage responsibly.
- 3 cups ramp leaves packed cups
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup pistachios
- 3 tbsp ramp whites
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino Sardo or Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
Combine first 4 ingredients in blender. Blend until paste forms, stopping often to push down ramp leaves. Add both cheeses and salt; blend until smooth. Transfer to a jar. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Top with 1/2 inch olive oil and chill.)
I do not over salt to begin with. You can always re-season as you cook with the pesto.
It is thick to begin with. The heat from the pan you are adding it to will loosen it a tad. But thin with oil, or even pasta water for a smoother, runnier texture.
You can easily replace the greens with basil, arugula, even asparagus or broccoli.
Try pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts or even pecans instead of the pistachios.
I will freeze pesto in larger ice cube moulds. Once frozen transfer them all to a freezer bag. They'll be ready whenever you need them.