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Foraging For Ramps

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Ramps. Also called wild leeks. You can't plant them. Well, you can plant them -- a university down south has done it -- but they don't grow. You might wish they did when you taste their slightly sweet, onion-garlic flavor. Ramps grow wild in the woods and the only people who have them at the farmer's market here in upstate New York are foragers. That is, people who have poked around in the woods, spotted the gently tapered greens, and dug up the tender white bulbs.

I got lucky last Saturday morning. I got to the Public Market at 5:30 a.m. because ramps sell out quickly. I wasn't sure this was the right time of spring, but I had a hunch. The season for ramps is maybe three weeks long and, since I'm a fair-weather friend when it comes to farmers' markets, this was my first visit since last fall. I'm a magazine food writer, so this makes me something of a hack. Would it kill me to get out of bed early once a week to check in with the farmers who are just scraping by, selling their apples, pears, onions and potatoes all winter?

This time of year, when the cherry blossoms have just peaked and the trees are not fully leafed out, there's nothing else to harvest except for fiddleheads and asparagus. That's pretty much all you'll find at the Public Market except for the racks of potted herbs and flowering plants the farmers sell while waiting for their crops to grow.

In the bright pre-dawn moments, the market was pretty sleepy. I hurried, ping-ponging from one side of the wide aisle to the other. A farmer I know told me that the Amish family had had ramps last week. That meant I hit it right. But with such a short growing season, there was a chance I was too late. Where was the Amish farmer? His stall was empty at 5:40 a.m.

You've got three kinds of farmers -- truck farmers, real farmers and foragers. Most foragers -- the folks who have fiddleheads and ramps and huckleberries and the like -- are also real farmers. The truck farmers are the ones selling bananas and lemons and other brightly colored foods that don't grow here, and even if they did they wouldn't have the audacity to grow here this time of year.

I saw a spotted a small, mostly bare table in front of a white car with its hood up. No big farm truck. No racks of geraniums. No outlandish pile of pineapples. I had hit paydirt. There they were, a low heap of ramps, their slender white bulbs facing the aisle, greens held together with rubber bands. Two dollars a bunch. The best part: I had beaten the chefs! Ramps are in high demand at the better restaurants and chefs compete to arrive first and scoop them up by the dozen.

The man selling the ramps, Alex Flowers, seemed to be an expert forager. He credits his Native American ancestry for his extensive knowledge of forageable foods. Later in the season, he told me, he'll have wild pursalane, lambs quarters, huckleberries and blackberries. His main job, however, is farmer.

Saturday, along with the ramps, his table held foraged chives and black walnuts, a perfumey, buttery nut with none of the bitterness of store-bought walnuts. Since they're very difficult to remove from their shells, black walnut pieces cost $5 for a half-filled baggie. There was something of a nickel-bag, back-of-the-school-bus feel to the transaction -- a tiny amount of this precious substance for big money. I opened the bag and tried one. Now I'm hooked.

But the ramps are the thing. Although people call them wild leeks, the leaves are tender enough to be eaten raw and the soft bulb only requires a couple of minutes of cooking. Ramps' flavor varies based on where they grow -- sometimes they can taste almost minty.

I chopped and sautéed these in butter with a pinch of sea salt. While they were cooking they smelled like a whole meal -- the sharp freshness of sliced celery and the hearty promise of roasting turkey. They were just as varied in the mouth -- complex like a long-simmered broth and as green tasting as rapini tossed with garlic in a hot pan.

There probably won't be any ramps at the farmer's market next Saturday. That's good news. All summer I can stay in bed on Saturday mornings and roll into the Public Market with the sleepy heads. Then next spring, I'll wake up one morning with a strong hunch. It might be gray and drizzling, it might be 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But if the cherry blossoms are just peaking and the trees haven't fully leafed, I'll jump out of bed at 5:15 a.m. and race to the market, hoping for ramps.

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