Wild onions and leeks (ramps) make wonderful additions to your everyday cooking recipes. Just by substituting a few chopped wild onions/ramps into your omelets instead of chives or scallions you can add loads of flavor to your breakfast. These plants grow wild here on the Onondaga Nation so getting a hold them can be a hassle unless you like traipsing in the woods (which this cook normally does not do). Fortunately, I was able to acquire both varieties from Dale Edwards & Amos Jacobs who drove up to the Communications Office asking a fair price for what they had just harvested.
Naturally, both the onions and ramps still needed to be cleaned. First, I submerged the ramps underwater freeing them of as much soil as I could before peeling the outer most layer of skin from them (this torturous task is usually relegated to teenagers to give them something to complain about, but there were no teens to be found). After they were cleaned I let them air dry over night on the counter. The next day after they were completely dry I placed bunches of 10 or so in freezer bags. It’s true, the taste of any produce is by far superior when plucked from the soil, cleaned, then cooked, but there were entirely too many ramps/onions to consume.
Note: If you attempt to freeze any produce before they are completely dry you end up with slimy veggies, which by most standards, is an undesirable texture. A friend of mine (whom I was asking advice on how to prepare the leeks being that I am from Oklahoma and had never cooked with them with them before) from Cherokee North Carolina said his mother told him stories of when she was in elementary school Cherokee students would be sent out of class to work in the hallway due to the smell of ramps on their breath. (Which to me sounds a little drastic.) His advice was the usual: fry them with potatoes, soups, etc. I also researched more intricate preparations such as using them in braising liquids and risottos. The raw taste of the ramp is akin to garlic or a shallot, so, you can cook them as you would any other aromatic. Dale told me to cook them outside unless I wanted the house smelling like onions, but I decided to risk it anyway.
First, I made a frittata, one of my favorite savory breakfasts. Instead of sautéing onions with the potatoes I used finely chopped ramp bulbs. I thinly sliced the leaves (chiffonade) and added them to my eggs for color and flavor. I toped the frittata with Parmesan cheese, vine ripened tomato, and basil leaves.
This braised short rib dish was a bit more challenging. Actually the braising was the easy part: seared the meat, deglazed with red wine, added ramp leaves, carrots, celery, a cinnamon stick, three cloves, a bay leaf, and simmered for three hours. The risotto was the challenging: sautéed some sweet onions and ramp bulbs until translucent, stirred the Arborio rice until incorporated with aromatics, deglazed with dry white wine (stirring constantly), after the rice absorbed the wine I ladled in hot chicken stock. The process was laborious constantly stirring until the rice had porridge like consistency (about 25 minutes). The fiddleheads were sautéed with garlic salt and pepper.
Cooking with the wild onions was more familiar to me having grown up harvesting and eating them as a small child in eastern Oklahoma. So, I prepared them with scrambled eggs. I then made a simple breakfast sandwich with eggs, freshly sliced avocado, bacon, and cheese.
Next I decided to make a wild onion burger. I bought some lean grass fed beef, added some olive oil, black truffle oil (since the meat is lean I had to add oil so the meat would not be dry, fattier meat would not need oil), and made a seven-ounce patty studded with the onions. I brushed some melted butter to the outside of the patty and seasoned with salt and pepper. The butter helps seal the burger when cooking, that way all of the juices (flavors) do not run out of the burger. Don’t smash your burger with your spatula, just let it cook; you want a nice crust on your patty. I cooked this burger in a smoking hot pan until medium rare. I topped the burger with red onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle, American cheese, bacon, and mayo, all served on a toasted roll.
Finally, I wanted to roast a chicken. I read somewhere that wrapping scallions around a punctured lemon will add amazing flavors to an oven-roasted bird. I decided to use wild onions in the scallions’ stead. After tying the lemon and onions together I stuffed it in the cavity of a four-pound chicken. I trussed the chicken sealing the cavity. I seasoned the outside of the bird with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. I roasted it for an hour and five minutes at 450 degrees.
While it is common to make soups with ingredients like this I am wondering how well these aromatics hold up in other food dishes such as savory crepes and/or in a gratin. Often with soups the ingredients get over cooked and lose what makes them unique, texture and taste. Also, using these foods in everyday cooking amounts to more variety in your diet. These plants are one of the last remnants of the vast, sophisticated, landscapes Native People cultivated pre-European contact. Rather saying the plants grow wild, its is safe to say, according to Charles C. Mann’s book 1491, these plants thrived through the nurturing and horticultural knowledge of our ancestors.
(Santee is a staff member at the Onondaga Nation Communications office. He is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)