5.8.13 Salt Away
I have a confession: I've never found a ramp in the wild. Embarrassing but true. Over the years, my foraging has turned up many prized mushrooms and choice plants, but the wild leek has remained elusive (as has the much-coveted morel). I am determined that this will be the year. In future, though, I won't have to leave it to chance. Because my crafty husband planted masses of Allium tricoccum in a shady cornder of our garden! The first patch, planted last year, came up successfully, so we planted another one last week. You're supposed to leave them mostly undisturbed for several years, allowing them to get established and really proliferate. But I've already taken a single leaf here or there. I've also bought ramps at the farmers market, where ramp frenzy is in full swing. Quite a few vendors are now selling only the leaves, because ramps have been over-harvested in many areas due to unsustainable practices. The trick is to leave at least as many bulbs behind as you take.
I wonder how many Chicagoans know that their city's name originally came from a dense growth of ramps near Lake Michigan. The plant was known as shikaakwa (chicagou) among the native Indian tribes. Ramps are found across eastern North America, from South Carolina to Canada, where they are consideres a threatened species in Québec.
Ramps have a strong oniony flavor with a hint of that wild funk. They are a wonderful addition to everything from potatoes fried in bacon fat to scrambled eggs to cornbread. I love them pickled, and these make an excellent garnish for a martini. Perhaps my favorite way that I've eaten them this year was in a creamy risotto I made with brown rice and crispy strips of pistachio-studded mortadella.
It occurred to me that a great way to preserve the intensity of flavor in ramps would be a salt. I used my dehydrator to dry out a small bunch of leaves, crushed them and then combined that with an equal portion of sea salt.
I blitzed the dried ramps and salt together in my spice grinder and what emerged was a fine green powder with a delicious pungency. I can imagine ramp salt working wonders on steak or roast chicken, potato salad or celery root puree, cheesy pasta or a Bloody Mary.
I can't say enough about concocting your own flavored salts. They are a quick and easy way to transform a dish (or a cocktail), sometimes dramatically. Salt can be a vehicle for whatever flavor you're mad about at the moment—chile, cumin, saffron, chocolate, rosemary, pink peppercorns, garlic...the sky's the limit. I like just one pure flavor or several combined. I even commissioned Lior Lev Sercarz, the New York-based Israeli spice king, to make me my own custom blend that's an inspired mix of salty, tart, hot and sweet. Stay tuned for more on that, including the chance to buy some for yourself!
This Italian sea salt has flecks of lavender, fennel and orange rind. I love it on anything with tomatoes and it's also fantastic on braised fennel.
This truffle salt was a gift and I enhanced it further by adding my own dried black trumpet mushrooms. It's insane on anything with cream and makes scrambled eggs a truly sensual experience.
I'm addicted to cumin salt, whether it's rimming the glass of a grapefruit margarita, sprinkled on cold mango or accenting a lamb curry. It's a good idea to lightly toast spices to bring out their rounder, more intense notes before you grind them with salt, although it depends on the flavor you're after. So off to the salt mines you go!
makes about 2/3 cup
- — a dozen ramp leaves
- — about 1/3 cup flaky sea salt, fleur de sel or sel gris
Fully dehydrate ramp leaves, using either a dehydrator or your oven on the lowest setting.
Pulverize in a food processor. Measure and set aside. Then measure out an equal quantity of sea salt. Combine the two in a small bowl.
Transfer to a spice grinder and blitz into a fine powder. Store in an airtight glass jar.