Some of the earliest edible spring arrivals come in stalk form. Featured here are four of my favorites (from top to bottom): rhubarb, ramp, asparagus and chives (well, a single chive). For this first part, I’m going to delve into the r’s: rhubarb and ramps.
Restrain yourself from calling it red celery, please. Curse you for even making such an accusation! While it does bear a striking resemblance to my vegetable nemesis and some varieties are green, that is where the similarities end. Where celery usually sits somewhere in the background, maybe adding some “texture” to a dish (and not much else, in my opinion) rhubarb pokes you in the eye with its bright tartness. Yes! Embrace it! It’s like a spring sunrise after a long dark winter!
OK, I will go out on a limb here and say that rhubarb’s pucker is probably what scares some people away from it. That and what to do with it. Let’s not overthink it. When cooked with a little water, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, allspice) these rigid stalks give way to a tangy, warm compote that is a perfect accompaniment to ice cream or yogurt. To add some natural sweetness to this recipe, you add fruit like strawberries (the classic partner, as they are often available simultaneously), raspberries or apples.
Simple Rhubarb Compote
1 lb rhubarb, ends trimmed and chopped into ½ inch pieces
¼ cup to ¾ cup sugar (I use only about a ¼ cup but I like tart)
¼ cup water (or orange juice for added sweetness)
1 tsp cinnamon (or other spice like allspice or cardamom, to taste)
Optional: ½ to one cup of fruit like chopped apples, raspberries or strawberries
These elusive alliums, cousins to leeks, garlic and chives, grow wild in the northeast U.S. and are often the first signs of life in spring. They are also fleeting. So fleeting, in fact, that they may no longer be available by the time I am done typing this. But I will forge ahead.
Unlike other alliums, ramps have two broad leaves and a slender red stem terminating in a dainty white bulb, all of which is edible. Their taste is as unique as their appearance. With more oomph than a leek, yet not as pungent as garlic, they are aromatic in their own ramp-y way. People tend to go bonkers over them. It may be their singular flavor, or a manifestation of cabin fever. Most likely it’s both of those things, in addition to their caginess. Because ramps are not cultivated, one either has to forage for them in the woods or pay a premium elsewhere. I paid $5 for a bunch of muddy ramps at the farmers market, while the pre-cleaned bunch were $8. I like them enough to spend $5 once a year, mainly because they are a sign of all the good things to come. And because I once had a pickled ramp atop a burger that I still think about.
So what does one do with ramps, aside from pine for them? Make risotto!
The following recipe is pretty basic and can be augmented with all kinds of things that may be lingering the back of your fridge (e.g. asparagus, peas or mushrooms, or leftover sausage or other bits of cooked meat). Let your imagination run wild, or just stick with the basic.
Basic Risotto with Ramps (adapted from Mark Bittman’s Risotto alla Milanese)
One cup Arborio rice or other short-grained rice
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
4-5 ramps: separate bulbs from the leaves and finely chop. Slice leaves and set aside.
½ cup finely chopped onion
4-6 cups of warm chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup dry white wine (optional)
½ cup Parmigiano or pecorino cheese, plus more for garnishing
Chopped chives (optional)
Heat butter or oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. Once shimmering (oil) or melted (butter) add the onions and cook until nearly translucent, but not browned (should be less than 5 minutes).
Add rice and ramp bulbs, stirring to ensure the rice is coated in the butter/oil. Add the wine if using (use stock if not) and continue to stir until the wine/stock has cooked off and the rice begins to look almost dry (but don’t let it get totally dry or it will burn).
Add half cup of the stock to the pot, stirring until it has absorbed, and then add a half a cup more. Continue this process until all the stock is used and the rice is al dente. This should take roughly 20 minutes. Add the chopped ramp leaves and then the cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste, and for added allium allure, sprinkle with some chopped chives before serving.
Coming soon: Chives and Asparagus