Summer is unequivocally my favorite season. I think you guys know that by now. But I have to say, spring comes in at a pretty close second. While I certainly appreciate all the beautiful things about fall, there’s always that underlying feeling the best part of the year is over. No more garden, no more beach days, no more sun past 4pm.
Spring, on the other hand, feels like things are just beginning. People wake up from their long winter naps. Flowers bloom. Days get longer. And the first veggies of the season start to find their way into the markets. Spring is full of hope and excitement for what the summer season has in store. In my experience, it seems more often than not that the anticipation of an event is more thrilling and satisfying than the event itself. Sometimes the dream of going on vacation is better than the actual trip. And sometimes the hopeful suspense of spring brings even more joy than the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
Of the first vegetables to hit the markets each spring, ramps are perhaps the most coveted amongst food fans. They’re also the most elusive. Ramps, if you’ve never had them, are alliums considered wild leeks, and only show up for a few short weeks in early spring. They look a bit like scallions, only with tender, leafy tops, and have an intense garlicky flavor.
Ramps grow wild on hillsides, and are not easy to cultivate outside of their natural habitat. This is something I learned the hard way when I tried to plant them in my garden a few years ago and not a single one sprouted. Because ramps typically require elevation to grow, you won’t find them anywhere around the flat farmlands of southern New Jersey.
Last week, I was minding my own business when the UPS man knocked on the door and handed me a package. I didn’t order anything, I thought? But then, I opened up the box to find a big mesh bag full of filthy, stinky, absolutely drop dead gorgeous ramps, and I immediately knew just who sent them.
When my dad remarried a few years ago, I was lucky enough he picked someone who loves food and cooking as much as I do. Mary Marie grew up in West Virginia, where ramps grow wild everywhere, like weeds. Literally. One night we were chatting over dinner and somehow my love for ramps came up in the conversation. Mary Marie looked at me, puzzled. “Ramps?? Are you kidding me??” To her, ramps had never been anything more than a pesky, invasive nuisance, no different than dandelions and lambs quarters. She was utterly shocked to hear how they’d become such a trendy ingredient in the food world.
Ever since that conversation, Mary Marie has been shipping me a box of ramps from a farm near her hometown every spring. And it’s the best. thing. ever. As soon as I opened that box, my heart started to flutter and I was filled with excitement. I couldn’t wait to clean them off and start cooking.
I pureed the ramps into a creamy sauce with walnuts and parmesan cheese to make a pesto that’s bright green, pungent and delicious. It’s great smeared onto a piece of grilled bread with a little goat cheese, spooned over grilled vegetables or served alongside meats and fish. But I’m really partial to it tossed with pasta. I shave in some fresh asparagus, using the same technique as this salad for great texture, sweetness and overall springiness.
If you’re lucky enough to find ramps where you live – run! don’t walk – to go buy them up and make this pasta. They’ll only be available for a limited time. If you can’t find ramps at your local market, order some here, or try making this pesto with spicy arugula and a few cloves of garlic instead. It will still be completely delicious and bring you all the same feels of springtime excitement.
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- 1 small bunch ramps, about 8-12, depending on size, cleaned, ends trimmed and cut in half
- 1/2 cup walnuts, plus more for garnish
- salt and pepper, to taste, plus plenty of salt for the pasta water
- 1/2 small lemon, juiced, (about 1 tablespoon) plus more for finishing
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup grated good quality parmesan cheese, such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, plus more for garnish
- 1/2 lb long pasta, such as linguini, bucatini or fettuccine
- 1 bunch asparagus, ends removed and shaved with a vegetable peeler into thin ribbons
- Fill a large pot with water and place on the stove to boil.
- Add the ramps, walnuts, salt and pepper to the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to break them up. Pour in the lemon juice and let the motor run as you slowly stream in the olive oil to create a smooth sauce. Add the parmesan cheese and pulse a few more times until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
- When the water is boiling, add a generous amount of salt, along with the pasta, and cook until very al dente. Drop the asparagus into the pasta water, gently stir and count to ten. Reserve a cup or two of the pasta water, then drain. Transfer the pasta and asparagus to a serving bowl and toss with the pesto, thinning out with a bit of pasta water as needed to make it saucy. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed and give an extra squirt of lemon juice to brighten it up, if desired. Garnish with more grated parmesan and chopped walnuts and serve immediately.