Pickled Ramps with Apple & Cucumber in Honey & Fish Sauce
I've had a bag of cleaned ramp bulbs sitting in the bottom of the fridge for more than a week and thought I better put them up today. So this morning I put up 5 pint-&-half jars (24 oz. each). I've concocted and used a good number of recipes for preserving ramps over the years, and while there are one or two that I consider tried-and-true, I nevertheless enjoy playing with the process more often than not. This morning's effort reflects that experimental urge.
Ramps have such a powerful garlic/onion flavor, so I often try to balance that with some sweetness or sometimes even fruitiness. Late season ramps, which is what this batch was, are even more pungent than their earlier, fully leafed versions. I also prefer my pickled things to be weaker rather than stronger concerning sourness, so I try to use less vinegar when it seems prudent. You'll see in this recipe a tad less vinegar and a little more sugar (in the form of cane sugar and honey) than some other recipes call for.
I also added an ingredient, Asian fish sauce, I've never used before when pickling vegetables, but my post-processing tasting tells me it might become something of a regular ingredient in many more canning sessions.
I've been reading and enjoying Edward Lee's beautiful new cooking volume Smoke & Pickles (Artisan, 2013). Lee's riff on his grandmother's recipe for "Pickled Garlic in Molasses Soy Sauce" caught my eye, especially as he described it as going particularly well with fried quail. Not that I eat a lot of quail, but the pairing conjured a mental image that stoked my creative furnace a bit. I didn't use Lee's specific recipe, which calls for an impressive 2 cups of soy sauce and 1/2 cup of molasses, but it did get me thinking and inspired me to try something different with my pickled ramps.
Lee's heavy use of soy sauce and molasses got me thinking about umami , the alleged fifth taste we humans can discern. Rather than using soy sauce I turned to fish sauce, and ingredient I am finding more and more places for in the kitchen. A little fish sauce goes a long way, so I added only 2 tablespoons and a splash more, which i think provided the right earthy note I was looking for to play off of the pungency of the ramps and the sweetness of the sugar and honey.
I also added slices of seedless cucumber and tart apple to the mix. I felt that the cucumber would act as something of a neutralizer, mellowing some of the slightly harsher character of these late season ramps. The apple adds that element of sweet tartness that I liked in the recipe for Ramp and Apple Pickled Sucker a few weeks ago.
So, here's my recipe for Pickled Ramps with Apple & Cucumber in Honey & Fish Sauce.
- white vinegar 2 cups
- water 1½ cups
- cane sugar 2 cups
- pickling spice* 1½ tbl
- fennel seed 1 tsp
- dried juniper berries* 1 tsp heaping
- fish sauce 2-3 tbl
- honey ¾ cup
- ramp bulbs cleaned and trimmed, enough to fill 5 pint-&-half (24 oz) jars.
- 1 tart apple, sliced into thin wedges
- 1 seedless cucumber, sliced thinly
Sterilize everything like you normally do when canning. Boil the pickling ingredients together, stirring constantly (you don't want the sugar to cook or caramelize, just dissolve fully). Stuff the jars with ramps, cucumber and apple slices, alternating a few ramps with an apple and cuke slice or two, until you get to the top. Push everything down into the jar as tightly as you can, and add more if you're able to.
Pour the hot pickling mix over the ramps, sliding a butter knife down the sides of the jars, jostling the contents a bit to make sure you get any air pockets out of there. Add more pickling mix if you need to, but don't go any higher than about a 1/4" from the rim. Seal the jars with lids and bands, and process in your canning bath for 15 minutes. Gently remove the jars and space them out on your counter while you wait for that exciting "pop!" of the lids, ensuring a good seal. Mark with contents and date.
My Atlanta friend Bryan asked me what the ramps taste like. Well, I let the jars sit for a few hours this morning, to make sure everything had time to get acquainted, before opening one up. The smell was nice...sweet, a little oniony, but also faintly herbal and even a little floral. I took a sip of the liquid. Didn't make me pucker, which is good, and I thought, "Hmmm, I wonder how this would taste in a cocktail." (Might find out tonight.) I bit into a ramp, judged it to have the slightly tamed, sweet, umami vibe I was hoping for, and immediately sliced a few up to cover some natural casing hot dogs for lunch. Thumbs up.
* The pickling spice I often use is one I get at an Amish General Store in the country outside of Shawano, WI. I buy it in small bulk containers and it contains mustard seed, allspice, corriander, cassia, ginger, peppers, cloves, bay leaves and a few other spices.
* I pick juniper berries in early fall - September to October and later - let them dry and store in empty spice jars. If you too want to harvest your own, make sure you know what you're picking.