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Ramps are a safe first project for new foragers. The distinctive garlicky, peppery aroma of ramps — also called wild onions — tells you immediately that you picked the right plant. These are a versatile vegetable, easily used in any recipe that calls for chives or green onions.

“Ramps are one of the first plants of spring and they make anything they touch special, even if it’s just a handful of chopped ramps on scrambled eggs,” says professional forager Kathy Yerich.

She provides gathered foods for the seasonal menus at local restaurants and is co-author, with Teresa Marrone, of “Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest: A Simple Field Guide.” She and her husband, Fred Yerich, served as my foraging guides last year, showing me how to identify and safely harvest ramps.

The operative expression here is “safely for the ramps.” It is easy to overharvest the slow-growing plant, and in some places, including the Canadian province of Quebec, all harvesting is prohibited. Minnesotans have different restrictions (no harvesting on public lands and only with permission of owner on private land). If foragers continue to be careful in how they harvest ramps, the wild onions will thrive.

The Yeriches take me to a deciduous woodland. Ramps grow in shade and moist soil, though not standing water. Their leaves resemble those of lily of the valley, and they often grow intermingled with trout lilies. A careful look at the leaves will distinguish the ramps from the trout lilies. Ramps are a solid green while trout lilies are mottled, like the fish for which they are named. The definitive test is the smell: Crush a leaf. If it smells like garlic, you have a ramp.

Fred Yerich finds an area dense in ramps. He uses a spading fork and digs down, lifting up the corner of a clump. Kathy Yerich pulls, wiggles and coaxes a few ramps loose from the group, then Fred tamps the clump back into the ground.

The Yeriches are on family land, and they are the only ones to harvest ramps here. Still, they take only a few ramps each time and continue moving to new spots so as not to stress the plants, an approach they recommend for anyone harvesting from land that is used in common.

North Carolina State University researchers have developed guidelines for sustainable harvesting of ramps, given that in Appalachia, these are big business. The researchers advise to take no more than 10 percent of the plants found in a clump.

Marrone, local author of many field guides, points out that if one person takes 10 percent, then the next forager takes 10 percent and so on, the clump is soon below the critical mass that ramps need to seed and reproduce.

“The leaves are tasty and taking a couple of leaves from the plant keeps the bulb intact and able to continue growing,” Marrone says.

While ramps are most commonly used whole, there are plenty of ways a cook can use the leaves alone. “The green part is just so good,” says Heather Jansz, who cooks under the name the Curry Diva.

“You can combine chopped ramp leaves and roasted garlic in cornbread or in a muffin mix, knead in a handful of diced leaves in any flatbread recipe, top off any savory squash, put them with boiled or mashed potatoes, or sprinkle sandwiches or salads with sautéed or fresh ramps, and anything with eggs,” Jansz says.

Her favorite way of preparing ramps is to simply fry them in good quality butter or ghee until they are crisp, then put them in a sealed container and refrigerate. She then uses the supply for the next several days on whatever food needs a little extra “oomph.”

When it comes to cooking ramps, whether whole or only the leaves, Jansz says to stick to the basics:

“Keep it simple and enjoy the flavor.”

Ramp Salt

Makes variable amount.

Note: This recipe is a way to use ramp leaves and any less attractive whole ramps that the cook has. From Carstens Smith.

• Ramps

• Sea salt

• Pink peppercorns

Directions

Heat oven to 250 degrees.

Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. (The dried ramps tend to stick to the surface on which they’re baked.)

Take a handful of washed ramps and ramp leaves. Pat them dry with a paper towel. Spread the ramps and leaves on the baking sheet so they are flat and not touching each other.

Bake until the thickest ramp on the baking sheet is completely dehydrated, about an hour. Remove from the oven and cool.

Put the dried ramps in a blender or food processor. Pulse until they are ground into a powder.

Grind sea salt and mix into the ramp powder in a 50/50 mixture.

Grind 1 tablespoon pink peppercorns for every ½ cup of ramp/salt mixture and add to the mixture. Store in a covered container in a cool, dry place.

Carstens Smith is a Minneapolis freelance writer.