Spring is in the air — and greens are in the earth. According to a friend who tends a farm Upstate, only the last couple weeks have granted the consistency of warmth needed to thaw the ground and allow for new plantings to begin. Rejoice! But then, not all plants need to be planted, per se. Some prefer to seed spontaneously, in the wild. Introducing the season of wild onions, including those most coveted now in New York City — ramps.
The farmers markets throughout the city have been showing off the first arrivals of these elegant allium. Ramps are noticeable for their long and slender, pinkish-tinted bulbs and flat-leaved shoots, but they’re distinctive for their mellow, sweet flavor, too. They aren’t cultivated, but rather foraged, and prefer to grow nearby ponds and rivers. Rare, wild, delicate and mild, they offer so many uses, you see.
To celebrate the mild, sweet flavors of spring, I thought I’d sprinkle them into a light pasta dish. Although they aren’t in season just yet (but will be soon), some peas sounded good company here. Peas are one of the few vegetables that freezes and reheats quite well in its raw state. I’m not sure why anyone would buy them in cans when they’re so fresh-tasting and easy to use from the freezer.
One more addition to this pasta dish comes from a chance encounter at a butcher shop. I’d attended a butchering demonstration at the longstanding East Village Meat Market last week. While we had gathered to hear about the newly formed Adirondack Grazers Cooperative and watch skilled experts break down a side of their beef, I became smitten with the meat market’s own house-cured “City Ham,” set on a table for snacking. So smoky-tasting and moist, it stood out amongst all the charcuterie we sampled, and kept me slightly distracted from the cuts of raw beef being cut up and plopped on the carving table like great piles of fish. So I took home a whole pound of this ham, in slices. I’m sure the beef would have tasted great, too.
A good ham can be hard to find, and it’s underrated in my opinion. Wherever bacon can be used, finely diced, for flavor, so could some salty, smoky, but less fatty ham. I thought it would make the perfect complement for the sweet, spring ramps and peas. And after a very quick, no-more-than-fifteen-minute cooking session, it did satisfy. The ham and ramps are just barely cooked, and kept in long slivers — I didn’t want to break the composition of the ramps too much, and the ham didn’t need any improvement from crisping. Just a little sweat on the pan to spread around its juices, which were absorbed by the pasta that was stirred in after a few moments of this.
You might notice that I’ve used a whole-grain shaped pasta for this dish, and the type that I found is actually made with farro. I’d found the fancy, Italian pasta at BKLYN Larder recently, and think that its nutty complexities add pleasant layers of earthiness to this dish. Try this with a whole wheat pasta, or just your favorite semolina variety instead. Just be sure to cook it al dente, and splash in a good ladle of the starchy cooking water, which will take on the smokiness of the ham.
Pasta With Ramps, Peas and Ham
(makes 3-4 servings)
1 lb shaped pasta (preferably whole grain)
2-3 small slices cured ham, cut to thin strips
1 cup frozen peas (or fresh when in season)
1 bunch wild ramps, cut to 1-inch pieces along its shoot and bulbs halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
optional 1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper to taste
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and drop in pasta; stir immediately.
Heat a wide saute pan with the olive oil. Add the ham slices, and stir a few moments. Add the ramps and peas and stir another minute. Once pasta is cooked al dente, transfer with a slotted spoon or tongs immediately to the saute pan of other ingredients, along with about 1/2 cup of its cooking liquid. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Stirring, let cook another minute or so to meld the flavors and cook off most of the liquid. Remove from heat and stir in the optional tablespoon of butter. Serve immediately.
(for 3-4 servings)
1 lb fancy pasta: $8.99
1 bunch ramps: $4.00
2 slices ham (at $8.99/lb): $0.50
1 cup frozen peas: $0.50
2 tablespoons olive oil: $0.25
1 tablespoon butter: $0.30
Five brownie points: You can use just a small amount of ham to “ham up” any dish, rather than making it the main substance. That way, you’ll get less cholesterol and smokey flavor. This pasta is likewise studded fairly sparsely with vegetables, too, so as to highlight the subtle flavor of ramps. But ramps themselves provide lots of Vitamin K thanks to their leafy green shoots, as well as a host of phytochemicals present in onions. Peas add a little more protein, and so does the pasta if using whole-grain.
Six maple leaves: The imported, fancy pasta I’ve used doesn’t help decrease the fossil fuels spendings of this dish, and I’m not sure how humanely raised or local the house-smoked ham was from the East Village butcher store — but wild ramps can only be found from small, local farms that bother to gather them. Grab ‘em while you can this spring.