Smoke, cure, pickle, forage?
I’ve never been much of a forager. The one exception is from when I lived in California, up and out of the valley in the Sierra Nevadas, east of Chico. Before I started teaching I studied birds for two years, taking seasonal wildlife intern positions to collect data on things like avian migration patterns, breeding territories, reproductive success, and my favorite: evaluating ecological effects of forestry management by monitoring the nest success of landbirds. That’s why I was up in the Sierras. So we hiked around all summer at about 8,000 feet, birding by ear, nest searching, looking out for bears (we saw 13 that summer), and we were lucky to be around when the morels popped up. One of the benefits of working with wildlife biologists is the company (who would you rather sit around a campfire with, biologists or accountants?), and another is mycological experience (complete with reputable field guides). We weren’t making much money, so our breakfasts and lunches were pretty spartan, but for a few weeks that summer we had some high class dishes like penne with sauteed morels with brown butter, garlic and parsley ($1.99 box of pasta; $30 worth of fresh mushrooms!). I loved that job. But other than that, I haven’t had too many opportunities to forage. (I guess you could say that I haven’t made too many opportunities to forage either.)
So, needless to say, I’m a little late to the ramp party. Not this season, but in general. I didn’t really know what ramps were until just recently (other than reading about them everywhere; but I don’t feel like that counts, since I hadn’t ever seen a real ramp, or tasted one, or picked one until last Friday.) A friend told me where to find them around, and I tread lightly, didn’t overpick, and figured I’d try them out this weekend. Because, really, what kind of East coast food blog (especially one with the word “pickle” in its title) doesn’t write about ramps this time of year?
First I made some pesto with the leaves. I can’t really say that I used Hank Shaw’s recipe, although I did read it for guidance. Mine has no almonds, no cheese, and it’s about as simple as pesto gets. I took the leaves from 18 smallish ramps, plus a dozen or so stems of fresh thyme, blanched them in salted water for a minute, then shocked them in ice water, gave a quick turn in the salad spinner and a squeeze in a kitchen towel to remove excess moisture. I didn’t hand pound it all in a mortar, but whizzed it in the food processor, along with some olive oil, salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a handful of fresh parsley.
The pesto was bright green, fresh, and herbal. I think I expected more of a sharp flavor, but I was really happy with how mellow this actually was. (I made a garlic scape pesto a few years ago that was a bit harsh, and that’s the flavor that was stuck in my brain.) This particular batch needed some salt (which I didn’t measure in the first place), so a sprinkle of sea salt along with a drizzle of olive oil was perfect.
I decided to pickle the bulbs, and I went to Momofuku for guidance. Straight up vinegar pickles (Esquire reprinted the Momofuku master pickle recipe here), with a teaspoon of Chinese Five Spice powder mixed in. I didn’t have any Japanese Seven Spice powder, and I know that they’re totally different, but I figure it could be interesting. (Realizing now, a day later, that there are no common ingredients among Chinese- and Japanese- odd-numbered spice powders, I’m hoping that this batch doesn’t suck.) I’ll do a naturally fermented pickle with the next batch to compare, and I’ll let you know how they turn out.