London - Apr. 22, 2011 - As winter releases her grip on the soil and all things green begin to force their way through the surface, it gives us hope that summer's harvest is soon to follow.
This has been a particularly challenging winter for all of us, and few could argue that the signs of spring are more than a welcome break.
The first edible gifts to hit the forest floor are ramps, otherwise known as wild leeks. I made plans to go foraging for them this past Monday, but we were hit with a blanket of snow and some not-so-spring-like weather. I have a feeling they’ll be a little late this year, but they normally make an appearance now through the beginning of May in Southern Ontario.
They are a fabulous addition to any cook’s spring repertoire, as they have a lovely sweetness with a slightly garlic edge when roasted or stir-fried. Ramps lend themselves to raw and cooked applications. You can sliver the leaves and add them to fresh salads or confit the bulbs in olive oil and use them for vinaigrettes or sauces. They can be used interchangeably with scallions or onions, but you will welcome the slightly complex and unique flavour they offer.
Ramps are known as "l’ail des bois" to our neighbours in Quebec, and it is now illegal to pick them in that province due to over-harvesting. If you do forage for ramps in the spring, it is important to do so respectfully. Only pick them when they are abundant, and try to select individual plants from scattered patches. Ramps are also available at some farmer’s markets during the season, so ask your local produce suppliers. I know that ByWard Market in Ottawa sells them at this time of year.
You know those days when the fridge is almost empty and you just throw something together with what little you have? The simple yet flavourful recipe below was created just like that, and it turned out to be an annual favourite. It originated with thinly sliced Spanish onions in place of the ramps, but once you taste the ramp version you’ll want to repeat it every spring. Despite my carnivorous nature, some of you will be pleased to know this dish is purely vegetarian.
Spring is technically here, so embrace it with both arms. Hopefully we’ve seen the last of the snow and can look forward to a long season of harvest to supply our kitchens with local fare.
Spring Pasta with Asparagus and Wild Ramps (serves 4)
1 454g package spaghetti
1 large bunch wild ramp bulbs, thinly sliced (approximately 30 small bulbs)
2 cups grape tomatoes, whole
1 bunch asparagus
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped.
Extra virgin olive oil
Dry white wine
Preheat oven to 400F and set water to boil on the stove for the pasta.
Bend the asparagus stems gently until they snap at their natural point of separation – discard the bottom halves. Lay the asparagus in a single layer on a baking sheet, drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. Roast them in the oven for 6-8 minutes, remove from the pan and slice diagonally into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.
Salt the boiling water and add the spaghetti. Boil until al dente (about 8-10 minutes).
While the pasta boils, heat a generous amount of olive oil in a deep skillet or large pot (enough to cover the bottom by 1/8 inch) and stir-fry the ramps on medium heat. Do not brown the ramps – you just want to cook them until translucent. Add the tomatoes and stir until they are slightly blistered, breaking them slightly with a wooden spoon. I know it sounds like a lot of oil, but trust me – it is the basis for your wonderful sauce mixed with the juices of the blistered tomatoes.
Add the roasted asparagus pieces, turn up the heat to medium-high, and deglaze the pan with a healthy splash of dry white wine.
The above process takes less than 10 minutes, so the pasta should be cooked by now. Using tongs, remove the spaghetti from the boiling water and add to the pan with the vegetables. Top with chopped parsley and Parmigiano, tossing to combine all the ingredients.
Serve immediately with a glass of crisp, chilled Sauvignon Blanc.
Tip: Roasting asparagus per the method above deepens the flavour and provides a lovely texture. Try wrapping some roasted asparagus with prosciutto to serve as an appetizer or serve it plain with a splash of lemon juice as a side dish to your favourite roasted meat dish.