IN SEASON: Ramps

Nothing makes local food lovers stampede like the arrival of ramps on the culinary landscape.

Like many others, I’ve been anxiously awaiting their arrival here in the Twin Cities.  My former CSA farm, Harmony Valley Farm, supplies ramps to the area co-ops and I’ve been reading their blog to track the progress of the ramp harvesting.

They finally arrived this past weekend, and I got my hands on some this past Monday at Mississippi Market.  I felt like shouting, “RAMPS! RAMPS!!!” and waving them around like a crazy person.

I’m not alone.  In recent weeks, there have been articles about overforaging of ramps, particularly on the East Coast, as foodies and restaurant diners clamor for them.   

Just what is it about ramps that inspires such ardent fervor?

First, ramps are a fleeting pleasure, a vegetable that’s foraged rather than cultivated and is only available for a few brief weeks in early spring.  After a punishing winter here in the Midwest, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of fresh, local food. 

Then, there’s the flavor and aroma.  Ramps are a type of wild leek with a pungent flavor that’s a mix of onion and garlic. They exude an earthy, musky aroma that stinks up your car the moment you put them in. When I picked up my son from preschool the day I bought the ramps, he wrinkled up his nose and said, “What stinks?”  For once, it was not the car.

But ultimately, the most exciting thing about ramps is what they symbolize – that spring has arrived.  Ramps are the first in the line of fresh, local spring foods that will start parading through the farmers markets and natural foods stores. 

***

One of the cool things about ramps is that you use the entire vegetable, both the bulb and leaves; just trim off the hairy roots on the tip of the bulb and chop away.

Ramps pair well with pasta, eggs, bacon and other early spring vegetables like fiddlehead ferns and asparagus.  Since they’re more strongly flavored than green onions, it’s probably best to saute, roast or pickle them.  They also make a potent pesto. 

Ramps should ideally be used the same day they are purchased, otherwise the leaves go limp.  Unfortunately, something came up on Monday so I couldn’t use them that night for dinner; instead, I wrapped them in a damp paper towel and stuck them in a plastic bag and they kept okay for another day or so.

The rainy, cool weather this week inspired a craving for comfort foods.  So, I made a recipe for ramps with pasta alla carbonara

This was the first time I’d made pasta alla carbonara, and I was surprised how easy it was to make. You just fry up some chopped bacon until the fat is rendered, then saute chopped ramps in the bacon fat, add the cooked noodles to the pan (note that I drained most of the excess bacon grease before adding the pasta), and then quickly stir in beaten eggs and some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.  The entire meal took less than 30 minutes.

The eggs and cheese made the dish creamy without the use of cream and, combined with the salty, smoky bacon and garlicky pungent ramps, it was a bowl of comfort on a rainy evening.

Of course, my hands stunk like bacon and ramps; my hair stunk like bacon and ramps; and my house stunk like bacon and ramps for hours afterward.  But you know what?  I didn’t care.  I wasn’t going anywhere.

(Just an FYI, I wouldn’t prepare this meal before going out somewhere with others. Unless they are bacon and garlic lovers. Or you are bald / planning to take a shower beforehand.)

***

Then, for the second bunch of ramps, we prepared a brinner (breakfast at dinner) of scrambled eggs with sauteed ramps and grated parmesan. Simple, easy and satisfying. 

Scrambled Eggs with Sauteed Ramps and Parmesan
(Serves 2)

Ingredients:
2 T. butter
1 bunch of ramps, thinly sliced
6 eggs
2 T. water

Salt & pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Instructions:
Beat the eggs and water; add salt and pepper to taste. 

In a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and saute the ramps for about 2 minutes.  You can either pour the eggs right into the pan with the ramps, or set the ramps aside and cook the eggs separately. 

Cook the eggs until no longer runny but still moist, then add the cheese and allow it to melt.  Re-add the ramps if you removed them earlier. Eat.

***
Here are some other recipes for ramps to inspire your cooking.

Ramp and Parsley Pesto (Simply Recipes)
Pasta with Ramps (Splendid Table)
Ramp Soup (Gourmet)
Ramp, Bacon & Ricotta Tart (Eggs on Sunday)
Scrambled Eggs with Ramps, Morels, and Asparagus (Bon Appetit)
Buckwheat Crepes with Ramps (Dog Hill Kitchen)
Pickled Ramps (Seasonal Chef)

And if you can’t get enough information about foraged foods, check out an earlier post of mine, IN SEASON:  Ramps and Fiddlehead Ferns.

Have you tried ramps? How do you like to prepare them?

Blood oranges, going once! going twice!

Like a vibrant jewel, this shimmering blood orange tart snagged my attention while at Patisserie 46 this weekend. 

Blood orange, oh fleeting citrus treasure, have I fully appreciated you during your brief time in the spotlight this season?  (Besides drinking those mojitos, of course.)

Blood oranges are one of the few remaining fruits that seem to be available only during a brief time window.  Which means if you intend to try them out this year, the time is now.

Having no idea how much longer this citrus fruit will be available at the store, I feel the need to compile a list of recipe links to start the blood orange juices flowing:

Roasted Beet and Blood Orange Salad with Spicy Greens (101 Cookbooks)
Mahi-Mahi with Blood Orange, Avocado and Red Onion Salsa (Bon Appetit)
Blood Orange Salsa with Shrimp (Kim O’Donnel)
Citrus Pound Cake with Blood Orange Sauce (Cooking Light)
Flaky Blood Orange Tart (Smitten Kitchen)
Blood Orange Compote (Everyday Food)
Blood Orange Martini (Martha Stewart)
Blood Orange Sorbet (David Lebowitz)

Or, if you’re feeling too lazy to cook and you live in Minneapolis or thereabouts, you might want to hop on down to Patisserie 46 before these babies are gone for good.  That works too.

IN SEASON: Kale

During the month of February, why not challenge yourself to either (1) try a new vegetable that you’ve never eaten before, (2) cultivate a taste for a vegetable you’ve disliked in the past, or (3) try new recipes for a vegetable that’s in season during the winter.

I mean, what else do you have to do anyway? We’ve got to entertain ourselves until the snow melts and the temperature climbs.

As a challenge to myself, I’m going to try to eat more kale during the month of February. 

Why kale, you ask?  Because it’s a vegetable that I don’t really seek out but I know it has tons of beneficial nutrients.  Plus, it’s a cool season green that is at its peak during late fall and winter (It was available at Minnesota farmers markets during the fall, but the kale you see in supermarkets now is from California). It’s prime time for this green.
 
I asked the Magic 8 ball of the Internet to tell me a little more about this vegetable, and here’s what I found:

Kale is a member of the cabbage family (brassicas), whose relatives also include broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, brussel sprouts and bok choy.  There are curly leaf varieties, with red or green leaves, or flat leaf varieties which are darker in color such as lacinato kale (also known as cavolo nero, black kale, Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale).

Kale is one of the oldest greens that has been cultivated (since around 5 B.C.) and can be found in native cuisines around the world (Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal and even Africa, to name a few), but the plant grows best in a cool climate.

Kale is chock-full of beneficial nutrients, brimming with iron, calcium, vitamins A,C and K, plus folic acid. (No wonder those Romans kicked butt). It’s very versatile in the kitchen, and can be roasted, steamed, boiled or sauteed. 

Even though I tried out some kale recipes when I was experimenting with this vegetable back in 2009, I’ve really been in a rut of making just one kale recipe, Pasta with Lentils, Kale, Caramelized Onions and Thyme, which I first read about in Rick Nelson’s former Table Talk blog in the StarTribune.

I really like the fact that you can caramelize the onions and cook the lentils ahead of time and store them in the fridge for up to five days. I typically prep these items over the weekend when I have more time, then it’s doable as a weeknight meal.

Some notes: 
-You can find French green lentils in the bulk area at natural foods stores like Mississippi Market.
-The original recipe called for lacinato kale, but I’ve always used green or red kale.  Note that if you use red kale, it will release color into the pasta cooking liquid and the pasta may look tinged pink.


Pasta with Lentils, Kale, Caramelized Onions and Thyme

Adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe, based on direction from Rick Nelson’s blog

Ingredients:
1/2 cup French (small) green lentils
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 T. minced fresh thyme
3/4 pound kale (any variety), stems & center ribs removed and leaves coarsely chopped
 3/4 pound dried short pasta
2 T. olive oil for drizzling over finished dish
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or toasted breadcrumb topping [OPTIONAL]

Instructions:
Combine the lentils, water, bay leaf and 1/4 tsp. salt  in a small uncovered saucepan and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the lentils are tender but not falling apart. (Keep an eye on the water level and monitor that the lentils remain covered with water, adding a bit more water if needed.) Remove from heat and discard the bay leaf. Do not drain the lentils. 

While the lentils are cooking, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a separate large saute pan, add the sliced onions, pepper and remaining 3/4 tsp. salt, and saute for one minute.  Then, cover the pan, turn the heat down to low and cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they turn golden and caramelize, about 45 minutes.  During the last ten minutes of cooking, turn up the heat to medium and stir more frequently to prevent the onions from sticking to the pan.

(You can choose to refrigerate the cooked lentils and caramelized onions at this point or continue with the recipe.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the kale for about 5-8 minutes, or until tender.  Transfer the kale to a colander and press leaves to remove excess water.  Keep the pot of water boiling, as you’ll use it to cook the pasta. 

In a large saute pan, combine the lentils, caramelized onions, chopped kale and minced thyme and simmer over medium heat for about a minute.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package instructions until it is al dente, then reserve one cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta into a colander.  Add the pasta to the lentil mixture, plus about 1/3 cup of the cooking water or as much as needed to keep the pasta moist, and toss everything over high heat for about 1 minute to integrate the ingredients. 

Drizzle 2 T. extra virgin olive oil over pasta, toss to combine and add more salt and pepper if needed.  Sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or toasted breadcrumbs over individual servings if desired.

***

I hope to branch out this month and expand my kale repertoire with some other recipes.

What are your favorite ways to prepare kale?  Are you up to undertaking a vegetable challenge yourself?  What are some vegetables that you haven’t tried yet but are curious about, or that you dislike but you may be willing to give a second chance?

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