Foraging for Ramps with Chef Peter Platt
Update: Knowledgeable naturalist Russ Cohen (click on comments below) will be conducting a foraging walk at the Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent on Saturday. June 6, sponsored by the Columbia Land Conservancy.
Farmed + Foraged: A Weekend of Spring Flavors, on May 15 - 17, is a farm-to-table dining event with a dozen-plus participating Berkshire County restaurants offering three-course prix-fixe menus that celebrate locally-grown produce, Berkshire artisan cheeses, heritage breed meats, locally made bread and chocolate, and Berkshire-crafted beer and spirits.
The “farmed” part sounds familiar enough, but that “foraged” business caught our eye: Do local chefs actually go rummaging through the woods in search of morels and fiddleheads?
Well, as it happens, some do. But with fresh morels selling for $30-or-so per pound, fat chance anyone lucky enough to know where to find some for free is going to share that information. Even fiddlehead foraging is an insider’s game: they all look alike in infancy, but some ferns taste better than others and are more digestible. Identifying the difference takes expertise.
“There used to be a fiddlehead lady who would pick about 1,000 pounds per season,” says Peter Platt, owner-chef of The Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough, and former executive chef at Wheatleigh, the luxury resort in Lenox where he worked for 17 years. “She’d find them mostly along riverbanks.
Platt, whose restaurant will participate in the event, swears he doesn’t have a secret stash of morels, though he says some who work in his kitchen do. And he doesn’t hunt for fiddleheads. But he does like to forage for the ramps that grow wild for 3 or 4 weeks each spring in damp spots throughout our region. Finding ramps, or wild leeks, doesn’t require the nose of a truffle pig. In fact, their bright green leaves pop against the browns and grays of the early spring woods. Easily identified by their foliage, which is similar to that of a mature lily-of-the-valley, only brighter green, each ramp has only two leaves, but since they grow in convenient clumps, they’re hard to miss. Platt’s favorite hunting ground is in York Lake State Park in Sandisfield. “All you need is a good trowel,” he says.
Back in the kitchen, Platt uses every part of the ramp. After he’s washed off the dirt and sliced off the roots along with the thin, loose membrane that covers each bulb, he will chop the white part and use it as an onion substitute in a powerfully-flavored dish, such as hash browns with bacon. “At this time of year, we like to top the hash browns, bacon, and ramps with sauteed shad roe, as both the ramps and the roe are in season so briefly and at exactly the same time. We finish that with a little brown-butter-lemon-caper-and-parsley sauce.”
Platt, a native Chicagoan who came to Berkshire County to attend Williams College, says ramps can be used in any recipe as a substitute for leeks, “just make sure they’re cooked all the way through.” Ramp greens are edible, too. “They retain their color and body even after they’re cooked,” he says. “yet they’re tender, not tough and stringy like leek greens. We use them as a wrap for fish mousse.”
Peter Platt’s Pickled Ramps
To extend the lifespan of ramps on the Old Inn menu, Platt pickles the white portion. “We use them as a garnish,” he says, “or as a substitute for the pickled onion in a Gibson.”
Wash ramps briefly (they aren’t sandy like leeks, so require no soaking), slip down the loose membrane covering the white bulb and chop it off, along with the roots. Cut off the green tops and retain for another use.
Blanch the ramps in salted boiling water for 60 seconds. Drain.
Meanwhile, stir together a brine:
1/2 c red wine vinegar
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. sugar.
Once the sugar is dissolved, pour the brine over the hot ramps, cover, and refrigerate. According to Platt, the ramps will be pickled in just a couple of hours, and they will keep in the refrigerator for months. If properly canned in sealed glass jars, they will keep indefinitely without refrigeration, until the seal is broken, after which they must be kept chilled.
Farmed + Foraged, May 15 - 17 throughout the Berkshires
For a list of participating restaurants, go to the Berkshire Grown website.
For menus, check the Berkshire Grown Blog closer to the date of the event.