Wild ramps are piled on top of each other for sale at the Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, Va. The perennial wild onion is an early spring vegetable used in many traditional Appalachian recipes.
By Scott Shalaway
In late April, I can count on two rewards for enduring a long cold winter -- ramps for the dinner table and a promise of morels.
Ramps are wild leeks, pungently aromatic members of the lily family. They form dense stands in rich damp soil along wooded streams. Ramps grow rapidly for only a few weeks in the spring. Bright sunlight streaming through naked trees above and spring rains trigger their growth.
But it is the strong taste of ramps for which they are best known. Some people love 'em. Others say ramp odor lingers on the breath and even taints body odor for days.
Fortunately ramps are easy to recognize. Clumps of lush green leaves -- each one broad, flat and spear-shaped -- contrast sharply with the still drab forest floor. A few inches beneath the surface rest clusters of swollen white aromatic bulbs.
Often it's Easter weekend when we dig up a few handfuls of ramps, rinse them in the stream, take them home and boil them for a few minutes to tone down the flavor, then sauté them with venison tenderloins. And if the timing is right, we throw a few morels in the skillet.
Although I haven't found any morels yet this spring, I expect them to pop soon. A fleshy, pitted, triangular head sits atop a hollow rubbery stalk. Morels range from tan to dark brown in color and measure 2 to 6 inches tall.
The best part of a morel hunt is when the mesh collecting bag is full. We cradle and sniff handfuls of our cool moist prizes. The rich and earthy aroma is reminiscent of humus from the forest floor.
Where do you find morels? Here, I'm afraid, you're on your own. Morel hunters tend to be as protective of their best spots as hunters and anglers are of theirs.
I will tell you that we usually find morels under or near dead apple and elm trees. And field guides list old orchards, recently burned fields and beech-maple and oak woodlands as prime morel habitat.
Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.
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