Food for Thought – Asparagus, Artichokes and Ramps – Oh My!

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by Linda Viertel – 

Once the snow storms finally end – really – spring should be around the corner this April. And, before farmers markets appear or move outdoors, delectable greens can appear on your kitchen table as a welcome respite from all those winter vegetables (too much squash anyone?). Artichokes are at their peak from March to May, while asparagus begins its prime season in late April through May, and ramps emerge from Spring’s defrosting soil but disappear in early June. Each boasts a unique taste and versatility in cooking methods.

Asparagus Advice + Easy Preparations

Asparagus is a perennial plant, so try to purchase the freshest, locally sourced version, which will be tastier than any asparagus grown year-round in South America. Look for tight buds on the tips and non-dessicated cut ends, which indicate the asparagus was not freshly harvested. Thin spears work best for stir-frying; medium spears sliced on a slant in bite-sized pieces are excellent for crunchy, bright-tasting salads; and, for high roasting, whole medium spears keep their shape and cook evenly. Larger spears may need to be peeled to remove any fibrous outer layers, before steaming – another popular preparation, especially when served with hollandaise sauce. And, be sure to cut off the tough woody spear ends, no matter what size spear. Whatever cooking method you choose, watch your preparation time to make sure the spears retain their intense green color for the most flavorsome result.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a sided-baking pan and place spears in a single layer. Drizzle olive oil on top, and sprinkle with Maldon or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 10-15 minutes until spears begin to shrivel and start to color. Season with lemon juice if desired and serve immediately. Or, drizzle mustard vinaigrette over the cooked spears, and sprinkle cut chives on top. Or, add roasted asparagus to fettucine cooked al dente and tossed with cream, grated parmiagiano reggiano, fresh lightly cooked peas if available, and finely chopped spring onions to taste. The options are varied and endless…

Artichokes – Two Ways

Italian immigrants brought artichokes (essentially the immature flowers of a cultivated thistle) to northern California in the early 19th century, and with their introduction to America’s culinary world has come a wide-range of preparations. Boiling larger globes in salted water with a dash of white vinegar and several garlic cloves is the most common preparation when served with melted butter or aioli for dipping.

Another popular offering is to stuff artichokes with a mixture of bread crumbs, grated parmesan, chopped fresh oregano, garlic and parsley, plus salt and pepper. You will need to prep the artichoke by cutting off the stem, snipping about ½ inch from the thorny leaf tips and digging out the choke with a spoon. Then massage fresh lemon juice into the leaves to avoid discoloration. Gently pull the leaves apart and stuff small amounts of the breadcrumb mixture in between the leaves, and place a generous amount in the center. Drizzle olive oil over all, place in a baking pan with ½ inch hot water, cover with tin foil so that the artichoke “steams” in its own flavorings and bake for an hour. No need for any dipping sauces in this version!

Ramps – for a Spring Brunch

Ramps, sometimes called wild leeks or spring onions, have a short season – one of the reasons they are so prized by home cooks and restaurateurs. Plus, foraging is the optimal way to harvest these delicacies, so their cost is relatively high at farmers markets. With a pronounced onion and garlic-like flavor, they are prized in Appalachia where ramp festivals abound all spring long. You can forage for your own after the last frost, when ramp leaves start to poke through the forest floor; a garlicky smell is sometimes the first hint you are in luck. Though slow-growing, ramps often propogate easily into thick “lawns” in wooded, wet forest regions. But, be careful to take only 1/3 of the cluster at most, and be sure to leave some of the roots and root bulbs to ensure further growth. The popularity of this unusual culinary treat has made ramps more endangered, so be kind –  maybe even “give up” some of your cache back to the earth and plant a few on your way out of the woods so that others can enjoy this wild edible.

Ramps are naturally milder and sweeter when sauteed than either scallions or leeks and pair well with bacon. So, here’s a simple way to prepare a tasty, spring brunch. Just dice and cook your favorite bacon (I prefer Schaller & Weber hand-cut into thick slabs) until crisp. Remove the bacon and most of the fat, then add a pat or two of butter and saute well-cleaned ramps until thoroughly cooked – the green leaves will start to brown and become crunchy. Remove ramps and fry eggs, sunny-side up or cook scrambled eggs to desired texture, in the pan. Serve eggs immediately with the cooked ramps on the side topped with diced bacon.

Additional Recipes

Easy Garlic Aioli for Roasted or Steamed Asparagus

  • 1 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (or to taste)  finely diced, or put through a garlic press, or made into a paste by crushing into a pinch of salt on a wooden board with the back of a knife.
  • Salt, if needed, and freshly ground pepper, if desired
  • Juice of ½ lemon

Whisk together until thoroughly combined. Will keep for one week in the refrigerator.

Fried Artichokes

  • 4 artichokes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 1/2 cups olive oil

Remove the hard outer leaves from the artichokes, cut stalk leaving about 1 to 2 inches, and pare off tough outer stalk fibers.

With a very sharp small knife or scissors, remove only the hard top part of the leaves. Soak the artichoke in water with the juice of one lemon and repeat for each artichoke.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil to 350-375 degrees in a pan that will hold all 4 artichokes deep enough for frying.

Drain the artichokes, dry well with a paper towel, and press them lengthwise on the table to open the leaves and slightly flatten out the globes. Each procedure must be repeated for each artichoke.

Season the inside of the artichokes with salt and pepper. Then dip the artichokes into the boiling oil with the stalk up, cook per about 10 minutes, then turn them upside down and cook on the other side, for the same time. Watch carefully so they don’t burn (stalks may take less time)

Drain them on absorbent paper, salt the artichokes while hot and serve immediately.

This recipe can be made with small artichokes as well, which are less tough and may require less preparation.  The garlic aioli is a wonderful dipping sauce.

Pickled Ramps

  • 8 oz. ramps, trimmed
  • 12 cup plus 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 34 cup rice vinegar
  • 14 cup honey
  • Coarsely ground black pepper

Light a grill (or indoor broiler). In a large bowl, toss the ramps with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt. Arrange the ramps on the grill off the coals, and cook, turning, until lightly charred, 2 to 3 minutes (watch carefully – the leaves will burn quickly). Transfer the ramps to a glass pint jar, folding them to fit inside, if necessary.

In a 2-qt. saucepan, combine the vinegar with the honey and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until reduced by one-third, about 5 minutes. Pour the vinegar over the ramps along with the remaining 12 cup olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Seal the jar and let stand until completely cool before serving. Refrigerate for up to 2 months.

Pickled ramps make an excellent condiment or side dish for meat, chicken or fish; and, their garlicky taste will intensify as the ramps age in the light, vinegary escabeche sauce.


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