Jonathan Benno displays a bouquet of ramp seeds.
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Ramp Caper Caper

Carolyn Jung - March 17th, 2014

Tiny, with a pungent punch and an equally sock-it-to-me price tag, they are the newest “it” ingredient among discerning New York City chefs.

They are ramp seeds. Not the fawned-over leaves or bulbs, but the BB-sized immature green seeds that appear briefly just after the plants bolt and sprout white flower heads in mid-summer. The seeds carry the same aggressive, earthy garlic/onion flavor of the bulbs and leaves, but can be preserved easily in salt or vinegar, much like capers, to be enjoyed year-round.

Some chefs have foraged for them on their own, but most turn to farmer Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, New York, who has sold them at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City for the past two years. For $120 per pound. (Meanwhile, ramps themselves tend to sell for around $5 per pound.)

The dizzying price practically rivals that of Kobe beef because gathering the seeds is so labor-intensive, Bishop says. They’re harvested during a two week period in July, after the ramp flowers set their seeds. The seeds boast a tender, green skin before turning hard and black. The key is to pick them when they still possess the green skin, which is where all the flavor lurks. “The plants go from flower to hard seed in 10 days, so you really have to jump on them,” Bishop says. “The little green seed heads grow in groups of three, and we pick them off each stem, one by one, by hand.”

Despite the steep price, these New York City chefs can’t get enough of them. Bishop sold only three pounds two years ago, but more than 20 pounds last year. Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter bought $400 worth of the seeds after one taste, Bishop says, opting to freeze most of them to use later.

Jonathan Benno of Lincoln Ristorante likes to use the ramp seeds fresh. Last August, he sprinkled them on squid ink chitarra with basil-fed snails, San Marzano tomatoes, chile paste, and mint.

Kelly White, chef de cuisine of Wallsé, knows first-hand how time-consuming ramp seeds can be after bringing back some from Lucky Dog Farm in Hamden, New York last year. “I called it my tedious project,” she says. “The cooks didn’t like it when I came back from the market with them, and they had to pick them all off the stems.”

White ended up putting the seeds through a lacto-fermentation process: salting them, then pouring apple cider vinegar over them before letting them cure at room temperature for two weeks. She likes to sprinkle a few on pan-seared trout finished with a red wine sauce. “They look like Nerds candy,” she says. “Regular capers are three times as large. And regular capers are a little harder in texture. These are pretty garlicky, but have the same salty quality as a regular caper, too.”

Jaime Young, chef de cuisine of Atera, bought four pounds of ramp seeds last year from Bishop, pickling half of them, and salting the rest. At the restaurant, he uses them sparingly atop an amaranth cracker with smoked trout roe, and in a warm oyster dish with Carolina rice grits. “They’re like tiny flavor bombs,” Young says. “A lot of times, diners don’t even notice them on a dish at first. But when they take a bite, it’s almost a ‘Wow, what was that?’ mystery punch.”

Food Arts senior editor Jim Poris first came across ramp capers when a Brooklyn chef slipped him a few to take home in 2011. The next year, Poris, a denizen of the greenmarket, bugged a few farmer friends whose tables groan with ramps in April and May, to give up tending to their late July tomatoes and retrieve bolted and soon-to-seed ramps before it was too late. Bishop came through last summer, as did a few others in the market.

“I got the whole thick-bulb ramp plant with the seed heads and picked them off, sliding two fingers over a seed head as you would with thyme,” Poris says. “Not too hard, but I’d recommend doing it over a wide bowl. Try to avoid leaving any stem on the individual seeds.

“I salted one batch for a week, another for two weeks, rinsed them, then briefly ‘washed them’ in a warm one-to-one cider vinegar/sugar solution. Once cooled, I put them in a Mason jar with some of the solution—not too much—and that was it. One regret: this year I’ll save the salt, which was redolent of ramps, as well as the bulbs—even if I’m still ramped out in August from the spring onslaught. Uses, you ask? Made a smørrebrød with some hearty Finnish rye and cultured butter, my own pickled herring, sliced hard-boiled eggs with some of the veg from the pickling solution, and the ramp capers. And so on.”

Oyster with Carolina Rice Grits & Ramp Capers
From chef Jamie Young of Atera in New York City

Makes 5 tasting portions (requires advanced preparation)

Ramp capers:

  • 2 cups ramp seeds, cleaned under cold water
  • kosher salt

1) In a Mason jar, pack the capers until completely and evenly covered in salt; leave to cure 1 month.

2) Before use, remove from salt; rinse.

Rice grits:

  • 1 cup rice grits
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 Tbsps. Unsalted butter
  • cream
  • salt

Combine grits and water in medium saucepan; bring to a boil; reduce heat; simmer until rice is tender; add butter; mix to combine; add cream as needed or until grits become creamy like risotto; season.

Rice milk:

  • 4 cups rice grits
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 cup turnip juice
  • 4 dried oysters
  • 1 to 2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
  • salt

Combine all ingredients in Gastrovac machine; set temperature to 72°C (160°F); cook 1 hour; strain liquid from the pot into medium saucepan; bring to a boil to thicken (the milk will naturally thicken from its own starch); whisk in butter; season; reserve.

Salt–baked turnips:

  • 6 egg whites
  • 3 cups salt
  • dried greens from red cedar branch
  • 2 med. Hakueri turnips, washed and dried

1) Heat oven to 160°C (320°F).

2) Whip egg whites to medium peaks; add salt and cedar greens; mix to combine.

3) On half sheet tray lined with parchment paper, make 2 small piles of salt/egg mixture; nestle turnips atop each pile; completely cover each turnip with remaining mixture; bake 25 to 35 minutes, until the turnips are tender; remove turnips from crust; peel skin; cut into small dice; fold into rice grits at proportion of about 2:1 grits to turnips.

Assembly:

  • 5 briny East Coast oysters
  • dried red cedar branch
  • ice lettuce
  • minutin
  • 5 wedges rangpur lime or yuzu

1) Heat a grill.

2) Lightly warm and smoke the oysters on the grill with dried cedar branch.

3) Heat grits in small saucepot; adjust with salt and butter as needed; warm rice milk; adjust consistency with butter and salt.

4) Place the grits onto the bottom of each plate; place oyster atop of the grits; spoon sauce over top; arrange ice lettuce, minutina, and ramp capers over the oyster; serve with a wedge of citrus.