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BY TOM YATES

Ramps are the fleeting darlings of the early spring farmers’ market. With a very short three to four week growing season, they’re usually the first thing to arrive at the market and the first to go. Blink and they’re gone. Members of the allium genus, ramps are also referred to as wild onions, wild leeks, or wild garlic. With feathery leafy tops and long purplish stems, they have a pronounced garlic aroma with a strong onion flavor, making them interchangeable with both garlic and onions in most recipes. If you run across ramps at the market, catch them while you can.

I got lucky. Red River Farm had buckets of gorgeous ramps at the Lexington Farmers’ Market. Even with their beautiful leafy tops fluttering in the morning breeze, most of the people in line were buying eggs and bacon. I filled my bag with ramps.

I toyed with the notion of tossing the ramps over burning coals to char before serving them on newspaper like Spanish colcotes (early spring green onions) with a ruddy Romesco sauce.In the end, I went with a very simple spring soup.

Chilled Ramp Soup with Blackened Sea Scallops. 

Typically, ramps are a bear to clean. They’re usually covered in crud and take time to prep. Because they stored them in buckets of water to keep them fresh, the ramps from Red River Farm were almost pre-prepped and ready to go. I simply snipped the roots from the bulbs and gave them a quick rinse. After slicing the greens from the stems, I set them aside before roughly chopping the stems and bulbs.

After heating a skillet over a medium high flame, I sauteed the ramp stems in a combination of olive oil and butter. When they started to caramelize, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 white wine, let it reduce by half, and added 2 cups chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced the heat, and added 2 peeled and chopped Elmwood Stock Farm new potatoes. While the potatoes simmered away in the ramp stock, I blanched the ramp greens along with a handful of fresh spinach (in heavily salted water) for exactly 45 seconds before plunging them into a salted ice-water bath.

When the potatoes were tender, I scooped them into a blender along with the cooked ramps, stock, and drained greens.  After adding 1/4 cup parmigiano reggiano cheese, a splash of fresh lemon juice, salt, and white pepper, I blitzed the soup into a verdant puree before sliding it into the refrigerator to chill.

I wanted the scallops to have bite. To counter and play off of the delicate spring ramps. I slid a small cast iron skillet over a blazing hot flame. When it started to smoke, I added a whisper of oil to the pan, dredged the dried scallops in cajun seasonings, blackened them on each side for 90 seconds, scooped them out of the smoky mess, and set them aside.

I ladled the chilled ramp soup into shallow bowls and nestled the blackened scallops into the center of each bowl before topping them with slivers of mango, red bell pepper, and shallots. After scattering Garey Farms micro mizzuna and arugula over the scallops, I finished with a few drops extra virgin olive oil. Simple. Bright. Light. Fabulous.

Although gloomy and overcast on opening day last year, the atmosphere at the market was upbeat and lively. Everyone was simply happy to be there. Vendors, shoppers, musicians, babies, and dogs all embraced opening day knowing there was a fabulous growing season ahead.  The farmers’ market was back in business!

There was an abundance of gorgeous early cool weather lettuces, herbs, tomato plants, and flowers. A few vendors offered out-of-state selections of tomatoes, corn, cabbages, yellow squash and strawberries.

We usually make a couple of rounds through the market before actually purchasing anything.  Not on the first day though. We were caught up in the excitement of being there, surrounded by fresh lush greenery.

We started our trek down the center aisle of the Pavilion. It was early. Early enough to score a dozen brown organic eggs from Elmwood Stock Farm before they ran out. They always run out. Next to Elmwood Stock, a Boyle County farm offered dew dripping red and green leaf lettuces, still with their tiny root ends attached and neatly wrapped in bundles.

We stumbled across a tasting of Sapori d’ Italia goat cheese. Tiny nibbles of Agri alle Erbe, young cold-aged fresh goat cheese, were topped with smoked paprika, red pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. They were made the day before and were very fresh, tangy, and creamy. We bought two.

I was drawn to a Mercer County vendor selling an interesting collection of herbs.  Although dwarfed by gigantic leaves of cabbage and broccoli plants, his herbs rocked. The most intriguing was “Salad Herb,” a delicate whisper of an herb that “the herb man” said tastes like cucumber.  I went back the next Saturday to snag a few of those before they disappeared for the season.

We sampled beer cheese and chocolate truffles before stopping by Quarles Quality Beef from Waddy, Kentucky.  After tasting their beer-steamed brats, we picked up a package of brats, a pound of short ribs, corn relish, and jam cake.

As we strolled around the back side of the market munching on chocolate croissants from Sunrise Bakery, I stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted huge Bracken County oyster mushrooms protruding from tiny baskets. They were colossal and beautiful. I left with one as big as my head.

The market wasn’t crowded this time last year. Even with musicians and barking dogs, it was pleasantly quiet and calm.

When the big time harvests start rolling in, all of Lexington Farmers’ Markets will explode.

I can’t wait.

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