I bought a bunch of ramps at the bustling Union Square farmers' market the other day and ran into a man with 20 bunches! It looked like he was carrying a wedding bouquet. "What are you doing with those?" I asked. "I'm cooking them up for my restaurant, Speedy Romeo, in Clinton Hill [in Brooklyn]," he replied.
Not only was this nice, tall chef a hero from TV's Chopped, he was also Jean-Georges' chef de cuisine for years. His specialities? Wood-fired pizzas and wood-fired steaks. And undoubtedly something with ramps! But in the full spirit of disclosure, I've never cooked a ramp in my life, and many folks don't seem to know what they are. But this year's most edible treasure is popping up on menus everywhere.
Ramps, grown everywhere in North America, are considered a rare delicacy in Canada. In Tennessee, however, they grow like weeds -- the stinky kind. Ramps, or allium tricoccum, are an early spring vegetable known as wild leeks and have a strong garlicky odor (so it's embarrassing to carry them on the subway) and an oniony flavor. They can be chopped and eaten in salads or cooked until meltingly pungent and sweet. Ramps have smooth broad leaves and a stubby scallion-like stalk and oval-ish white bulb. Every bit of it (except any scraggly roots) can be eaten. While asparagus, fiddleheads and rhubarb are the harbingers of spring in many parts of the country, in Appalachia, it is the ramp which heralds its arrival. In the rural South, the ramp is considered a healthy "tonic" whose abundance of beneficial vitamins and powerful antioxidants is a scrub-brush for many ailments.
Is there any menu in America not featuring a pickled ramp these days? More traditional dishes using ramps are ramps with eggs, fried ramps with potatoes and potato and ramp soup, but today you'll find roasted ramps on pizza, ramp "pesto" tossed with linguine (clams, anyone?), soft-shelled crabs and ramps, (hmmm...), coq au vin with ramps and bacon (yum), cauliflower soup with cheddar and ramps (I want that) and ramp potato pierogies (I imagine a stampede). I think I'll "smother" the ramps currently nestled in my fridge (with leaves and bulb intact) in a little stock, with a splash of wine, and a bit of cold butter and pour it over mess of thick grilled juicy pork chops.
And would you believe there is one devoted soul, so enamored of this two-in-one veg, that his website, Ramps! The King of Stink, has become a beacon for ramp lovers? It features up-to-date stats on which restaurants -- and where -- are serving ramps in "real time." For example, on April 21, 2012, you could find them at Cristi's Cook Shack in Cleveland, West Virginia. "Call ahead," the website proclaims. But call soon, I suggest, as they won't be available forever.
All over America, there are ramp fests galore, in which participants "ramp it up" as virtuosically as any jazz artist during summer's music fests. In Bradford, Pennsylvania, there's an annual event called "Stinkfest"; in Whitetop, Virginia, their ramp festival, held the third weekend in May, features a firehouse cook-off and ramp-eating contest for adults and children (that's impressive); while in Cosby, Tennessee, some promising young woman is crowned "Maid of Ramps" every single year. Think of the reunion.
Do let me know if you've worked with ramps before. I understand they are particularly delicious sauteed in a bit of bacon "grease" as someone just elegantly told me. I imagine they would be tasty steeped in a pint of vodka, or glorious if caramelized atop a crabcake. Hurry. The season's almost over.
And thanks to friend and wine maven, Carol Berman, for the inadvertent title.
Rozanne Gold is an award-winning chef and author of 'Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs;' 'Healthy 1-2-3,' and 'Radically Simple'
Rozanne can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RozanneGold.