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Each week in Market Research, Washington City Paper will present a guide to a seasonal ingredient available at area farmer’s markets. Here’s the first installment.

Ingredient: Ramps

What: “Fresh Wild Ramps!” advertised the hand-lettered sign at the Penn Quarter farmers market. But the ramps were only for sale to those who purchased mushrooms from Phillips Mushroom Farms. Ferial Welsh was quick to shoo away customers drawn to the bright green leaves: “For mushroom buyers only. Please don’t touch; they are delicate.”

How to Spot: Ramps are a wild leek—properly a member of the lily family. They are native to North America, and grow in forested, shaded areas. While ramps can be cultivated, they are most commonly foraged. (Phillips’ ramps are gathered wild in West Virginia.) They appear at markets in mid-to-late May, and disappear quickly—probably by this week or next. “They are good for your immune system and a boost for your energy,” Welsh says. But like onions, they come with a potent smell—Foxfire 2, a collection of oral histories from the Appalachian South, says of ramps, “They’s not for ladies or those who court them.”

How to Buy: Ramp bulbs are about the size of a marble. Look for a firm bulb and undamaged leaves. Dirt caught in the bulb’s roots is a sign the plant hasn’t been manhandled.

How to Eat: Use the entire ramp, chopping the bulb and leaves down as desired. Think of them as a very exclusive onion: pickle, sauté, and wilt the greens as a means of adding a kick to anything. Welsh suggests sautéing chopped leaves and stems in butter and olive oil for about a minute. You can then add those mushrooms you were strong-armed into purchasing and cook the lot for another three to four minutes. The mixture can be served over pasta with a squeeze of lemon, or become the filling for an omelet. (I went this route with the addition of some Havarti cheese.)

Photo by Phoebe Connelly