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Foraging for Ramps With Chef Justin Bittner

The executive chef at District Distilling explains how to properly source the coveted vegetable.
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Several years ago, Justin Bittner, executive chef at District Distilling, discovered an expanse of green gold on his family's farm in Berlin, Pennsylvania. In the woods behind the house, thousands of ramps carpet the forest floor.

The foraged forb is coveted by chefs and diners, which means it has been listed as a protected plant with a "special concern" status in states such as Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee because of its rarity. On Bittner's family farm, however, they grow like weeds. "I can't believe how many are out here," he says. "This forest has been what it is for hundreds of years. It's undisturbed, so they've been able to replant themselves."

The ramp's scientific name is Allium tricoccum, but it's commonly referred to as a wild leek. It's a member of the lily family and the onion genus, along with garlic, chives and leeks. According to the USDA, the species is native to the eastern United States and Canada, including Quebec, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and almost everywhere in between. "They like to live along the Appalachian Trail," Bittner adds. "They like to be in the woods; they like rocky soil." They also prefer shady areas with damp soil and plenty of decomposed leaf litter.

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Ramps are a perennial plant, so sustainable foraging practices are key to its survival and propagation. "As long as you don't take more than 20 percent of a patch, it's fine," Bittner explains. "A lot of people get a lot of flack for pulling the whole root up. You're supposed to get down in there and snip it off and leave the root." When he forages in the field of ramps, he also takes care to tread in different directions and harvest from different patches each year.

The ramps Bittner forage can grow to about 9 to 10 inches in total, and he says it's best to wait until they reach full size before digging them up. In other parts of the country, they can grow as large as 12 to 14 inches. "They will get more pungent as they grow," Bittner adds.

The season is very short and the timing depends on the weather patterns. "It's about two weeks," Bittner says. "Mid April to late April." At the end of season, female ramps sprout a flower stalk, which develops seeds that eventually fall into the soil and germinate. "Don't touch the females," he says.

After discovering the ramp bounty right in his backyard, he invited chef friends from D.C. to come up and forage with him. "We call it Rampsmas," he says. "Every year a bunch of us come up and dig them and then we throw a big dinner." Chefs from The Dabney, Bar Pilar, Thip Khao, and Keepwell Vinegar take part in the celebration. Because of how plentiful the ramps are, they can collect between 300 and 400 pounds among all of them without even making a dent.

With the ramps in tow back in the District Distilling kitchen, Bittner has fun dreaming up specials to make use of his bounty. "We put them on the menu in many different ways," he says. "I like to make a five onion risotto, so I'll do ramps, garlic chives, spring garlic, shallots and garlic, and then blend that all into the dish."

Bittner has also made ramp pasta with the leaves blended into the pasta dough, and he personally enjoys eating them on their own. "I like them just sautéed with a little butter and salt," he says. "You don't need to do much to them."

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A crowd favorite that always makes an appearance at Rampsmas is ramp peanut pesto on pizza. "A pesto is anything green with some type of nut, garlic, olive oil and cheese. It doesn't have to be basil and pine nuts."

Ramps may be all the rage right now, but Rampsmas is about more than that for Bittner and his fellow chefs. "Who knows in 10 years what'll be the thing to attract patrons to a restaurant," he says. Rampsmas is about camaraderie. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, chefs hated each other, and they hid recipes, and they kept secrets and things like that. Now everyone's a community," he says. "For us to be able to come up here, it's less about the ramps at that point and more about just having a good time."

Photos by Lani Furbank.

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