Creative Sustenance

Culinary and other adventures in foraging, gardening, urban farming and more, in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Filtering by Category: Condiments

Ramp pesto

My Dad phoned me yesterday while he was out on one of his local exploring mini-expeditions. "I found a place covered with wild onions. They're all over." "Already?" I replied. "It's little early yet." I have my spots that I start checking around this time of year and thus far no ramps have made an appearance. 

"Where are you?" I asked. He told me and I said, "Well, why don't you come get me and we'll have a look?" He was a bit further inland than where I begin looking for the dagger-shaped leaves around this time of year, enough so that the cool Lake Michigan temperatures weren't a factor in slowing spring growth like they are closer to the lake. 

I retrieved a couple of bags, my old digging knife and a camera and waited for my Dad to show up. Upon arriving at the place he had found I had to admit that he had indeed come upon a good location for spring ramps ("wild onions" to Dad). Although they were still relatively small in size they were growing thickly, with little bunches more or less uniformly covering a pretty large expanse of ground. 

Young ramps bursting through the earth in early spring.

I was excited and harvested just a couple of handfuls-worth, while planning to return to the spot in another week or two.

Just-harvested ramps. It's not cool to harvest too much. Be frugal and leave more than you take.

Ramps, also known as wild leeks or wild onions, are one of the first wild edibles a lot of folks learn to identify and harvest. That may be because they are also one of the first edibles to make an appearance each spring. They are hard to mistake for anything else once you've harvested them yourself. They also seem to have become much more popular (trendy might be a better word) with chefs in recent years, and you'll find them on menus in a number of noteworthy restaurants.

Ramps have an intense flavor that's something of a marriage of green onion and garlic, and you can use them just about any way you might use either or both of those vegetable herbs. When the morels begin to appear a plate of grilled morel mushrooms and ramps, washed down with a nice ale, is practically tradition.

Ramps after cleaning, beautiful and colorful.

This morning I decided to make a pesto from the bunch I dug up yesterday. I'll share the recipe here, but bear in mind that the ingredient amounts are entirely arbitrary. Pesto is one of those things that can be made any number of ways with any number of ingredients and any number of mutable measurements.  

Ramp & Arugula Pesto


  • Ramps, one large handful
  • Arugula, 3/4 cup
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1/2+ cup
  • Almonds, 1/2 cup, toasted
  • Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, 1 cup, shaved
  • Pinch of salt
  • Freshly ground pepper, just a couple turns of the pepper mill

Ramp pesto ingredients, romaine and baby spinach I added later not shown.

1. Toast the almonds in an oven at 400° for around 10 minutes. They smell oh-so-good! Roughly chop them up and pour into your food processor. Give it a few pulses to chop them even more.

2. Roughly chop the ramps, leaves and all. Add the chopped ramps, arugula, oil, cheese, salt and pepper to the processor. Pulse it until everything is well blended. You may want to add more oil until it gets to a consistency you like.

Ramp & arugula pesto, ready to rock your taste buds.

That's pretty well it. Easy-peasy. But now here is where the adaptable nature of pesto comes in handy. I found that my initial recipe was far too pungent. I knew that Kim would find it too spicy and "hot" for her taste. So I grabbed a handful of baby spinach and three big leaves of romaine lettuce, tossed them into the processor and pulsed it to blend everything together. Perfect! The spinach and romaine mellowed it out quite nicely. The finished pesto looked fantastic, a beautiful vibrant green, and it had a spicy freshness that made spring seem even more spring-y.

Eager to use the ramp pesto right away, I whipped up a huge omelet with a row of canned diced tomatoes and a strip of the pesto spooned over them before folding the omelet over on itself. I cut the fat egg pie in half and plated one half for Kim and the other for me. It was incredible. I am not making this up--go ahead and ask her--Kim actually licked her plate clean. That's how good it was.

The pesto will stay fresh in your fridge for a month or so, if it lasts that long before you eat it all!

After we finished breakfast I jarred the remaining pesto into an empty gelato container and thought, "I would totally buy this if it was on a store shelf. Someone should make this stuff to sell." Someone like me! (Let me know if you would like a jar.)

Maple Syrup

This month I had the pleasure to learn the craft of making maple syrup with Jack Kretsch of Kretsch Family Maple Syrup. Jack and his wife Bonnie live outside of Manitowoc, near Whitelaw, where they have a hundred or so sugar maple tap lines running each year at the close of winter. I knew the high quality of Kretsch maple syrup because we used it for our Sunday morning breakfasts at Stumpjack, in our special french toast (I must remember to share that recipe here) and our baked oatmeal. Kretsch Maple Syrup a relatively small operation and their syrup is something special; it's sweet but not cloyingly so, it is lighter in color, golden brown rather than the dark, caramelized brown you see in many syrups. It's a natural and pure artisan syrup with a flavor that is entirely unadulterated.

Tap lines one a large maple tree. On one of the days we collected sap we harvested 277 gallons.

I told Jack's daughter Heather last year that if they desired any help with the maple syrup production I would be eager to join in, so that I might learn some of their secrets for producing the delicious elixir (yes, I've enjoyed it right from the glass, straight up, no chaser). Heather contacted me and said that her dad could, in fact, use a little help with this season's harvest and production. I was excited to be of assistance wherever I could. Unfortunately, I didn't get to help nearly as much as I had hoped, because the season was cut short by the uncharacteristic warm weather we've had this year. I was hoping to participate all the way through April but this year's season lasted just three weeks. Jack confirmed that last weekend was pretty well the end of it. The nights were not getting cold enough to produce the kind of sap flow they needed.

Wood burning stove that cooks the sap and steel pail collected cooked syrup through a filter.

But I did get three or four days in where I got to lend a hand collecting sap and hanging out with Jack in his sugar shack while he processed the sap into syrup. I wasn't able to be there when he did the final filtering and bottling, which bummed me out a bit because I wanted to get photos of every step during the process. Next year.


Jack Kretsch shrouded in steam inside his sugar shack as he cooks maple sap into maple syrup.

I took a lot of photos and a little bit of video, and I learned a lot and had a great time getting to know Jack. (I may have to profile him in a future article; the man does a heckuva lot of interesting things and is quite a character.) I shared the photos on my facebook page; the few shown here are from that album.

Jack in his poker room with a couple bottles of Kretsch Family Maple Syrup.

I told Jack that I have a small maple tree in my yard, and he gave me a tap, line and pail to see what I might be able to draw from it. It's a small diameter tree that I planted maybe 15 or so years ago from a little sprout that was growing in the hedge row between us and our neighbor. It shot up like a weed and is as tall as our two-story home now. I didn't get much sap from it, only a gallon or so. Last night I boiled down what I had collected and was very excited to be able to bottle some maple syrup. It was a damn small bottle (a former hot sauce bottle), but it's maple syrup I actually made myself from my own tree. And that's a pretty sweet deal.

My own maple syrup. Next year I intend to pursue making maple syrup on a larger scale.

I'll follow this entry up with one that goes into the actual process of making maple syrup, and will share some of the lessons I learned from Jack that I think help set his syrup apart from some of the others on the market.

Making mustard is so easy

We did a little grocery shopping last week and picked up, among other things, one of those inexpensive small hams, the kind that you just keep in the fridge and pull out to carve a few slices for a sandwich whenever the mood hits. Earlier today, hungry but in a bit of a hurry and not wanting to spend time cooking, I did just that. I quickly slapped together a simple ham & cheese sandwich, with mustard and mayonnaise. Nothing special.

It filled me up but left me profoundly unsatisfied. In fact I actually felt a little peeved after eating it. I knew this ham would be mostly bland and flavorless when I bought it. But it was cheap and I figured it would serve its purpose well enough.

Not today. Everything about that sandwich irked me: the fact that I spent money on something I normally would not have, the blandness of it all, even the predictable flavors of factory-made mustard and mayo. It was like that once-a-year urge I get to eat fast food, which is always followed by a feeling of regret and self recrimination.

So, what does one do when one's foodie mojo has been sullied? He makes mustard, that's what! Making your own mustard (and other condiments) is one of the most simple and easy things you can do in the kitchen, and can markedly improve just about any dish or recipe you make.

mustard seeds

At its simplest all you need to make a good mustard is mustard seed and a liquid binder of some sort (vinegar or even water, for example). Of course there are countless other ingredients you can use to customize a condiment like mustard. I had an old, almost empty bottle of Apple Pie Liqueur I had squirreled away from when we were making appletinis at Stumpjack a couple years ago. I thought the apple liqueur might provide a nice element of sweetness and that the alcohol would offer a bit of additional preservation to the mix. I've also been drying some raw ginger lately and thought that might add a nice cooling element to mustard seed's natural heat.

mustard seed and dried ginger


  • 1/2 cup mustard seed 
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup Apple Pie Liqueur
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp grated dried ginger
  • pinch of sea salt
  • water

1. I grated the dried ginger with a microplane (which smells divine) and added it and the turmeric to the mustard seed. Turmeric has a potent earthy flavor and the color is wonderful.
2. I then added the seed/turmeric/ginger mix to a coffee grinder and processed it into a fine powder.

ground mustard, ginger, turmeric

3. Transfer the powdered mix to a bowl, add the Apple pie Liqueur and cider vinegar and mix well with a spoon.
4. Salt to taste.
5. Add water a tablespoon at a time and keep mixing until you get the consistency you want. I added 5 tablespoons water total.

That's it. The flavors come together and mellow out after sitting for a day or two (or three), although this recipe has a fairly solid whoa! factor. Spoon the mixture into a jar, cover it and set it in the fridge...after you smear some on another ham sandwich or piece of sausage and congratulate yourself for making something so darn tasty!

the finished mustard

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