Ramps: A stinking man's food

Ramps are the unlikely cool kids of spring cuisine.

These scrawny little wild leeks, which reek, are prized by mountain folks and chefs alike as early harbingers of green, and seem to be increasingly celebrated from one side of the country to the other.

Here in Appalachia, we are in the heart of ramp country, and lots of people here literally dig them. Last week, Sean Ehland, executive chef at Kaya in the Strip District, was tweeting photos of ramp roll-ups with bacon and goat cheese, and now ramps are popping up all over the menu and other menus around town, as well as at Giant Eagle Market District stores and Whole Foods. Lidia's is celebrating Earth Day with a four-course ramps dinner on Fri., April 22 ($40).

If you want to see what all the love is about, you might want to check out the Mason-Dixon Ramp Festival. The 21st fest runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 16 and 17, at Mason-Dixon Park near Mount Morris in Greene County, just off Interstate 79, about 65 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Saturday actually starts at 9 a.m. with "Diane's breakfast," and Sunday starts at 9 a.m. with an outdoor church service. There's music and crafters, prizes and raffles, antique engines and campers.

But the stinky stars of the show are the ramps, made every which way and into every kind of food by a dozen food vendors. There'll be beer-battered, deep-fried ramps, ramp salad, Mason-Dixon dogs (topped with fresh chopped ramps plus chili, coleslaw, sauerkraut and onions). There'll be ramp burgers, ramp kielbasa, fried potatoes and ramps, ramp butter and dips, and ramp cheese ball.

Organizer Connie Ammons says they'll go through more than 22 bushels of ramps.

You can even taste homemade ramp wine. It was made by Betty Quintana, a retired schoolteacher turned dairy goat farmer who lives between two 3,000-foot-tall wooded hills near Blacksville, W.Va. She's got a "show patch" of leeks in her yard, and elsewhere on her property a "big patch," and she loves to go there when the leeks are ready in the spring with a piece of bread. "I pull them out of the ground, rinse 'em in the crick, and have a ramp sandwich immediately," she says. "My yearly, how shall I say it -- the way I celebrate."

Her love of ramps, as with a lot of folks, is, as she puts it, "a medicinal thing and a walk-in-the-woods thing."

She started coming to the ramp festival to pitch her nature walk business, but her skill as a home wine maker got her roped into making a batch of ramp wine, and now she gives out fizzy samples of it.

"It doesn't taste like any wine you've ever had," she says with a laugh, adding, "It's not bad."

You can learn to cook with ramps at demos by Washington County's "Ramp Man" Walter Danna, who's written a ramp cookbook. And there will be some non-ramped foods, such as maple syrup products, Uncle Jim's donuts and funnel cakes, baked goods including "salt-risen bread," cornbread and beans, fresh fries and onion rings, sweet sausage sandwiches, fudge, kettle corn, whiskey jams and jellies, canned peppers and salsa, and sassafras tea. But they will be selling fresh ramps to bring home, too (about $4 per dozen). Just plan on leaving your car windows down on the drive home.

To get there, take I-79 to Exit 1 at Mount Morris to Buckeye Road to Creek Road and go 1/2 mile to Mason-Dixon Park (1-304-879-5500 or masondixonpark.net). More info by calling 1-304-879-5372 or e-mailing keeperoftheland@aol.com.

Other ramp doings

There are other ramp gatherings, big and small, but the mother of all "ramp feeds" is the one in Richwood, W.Va., "the Ramp Capital of the World," sponsored by the National Ramp Association. The 73rd Feast of the Ramson runs from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on April 16 at the high school in Richwood, which is about 215 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Organizers note that such springtime "get togethers" were a tradition dating back to early settlers, who'd serve a "mess" of ramps with bear or venison, corn pone and other victuals, along with "lots of eatin' and greetin', buzzin' and gabbin', singing' and fiddlin'."

The event includes an art and craft show, music and dancers, and a Ramp Festival Queen. On the menu, besides ramps, are ham and bacon, potatoes and brown beans, corn bread and desserts, for $15 per person or $7 for children (advance purchases are discounted and folks who prepay get a special entrance). Details at 1-304-846-6790 or rwdchamber@frontier.com.

Find other dinners at Glenville, W.Va., native Anita Toth Simpson's website kingofstink.com.

Up north, the Westline Inn in Westline, McKean County, holds its big outdoor ramp festival on May 1. You can eat leek sausage and ham-and-leek sandwich, leek spread, leek soup and the Kinzua Trail Club's leek hotdogs. Enter the Leek Dip Contest for prizes and bragging rights. "Your breath will end up smelling like your dog's ..." Reserve a room, too, at 1-814-778-5103 (westlineinn.com).

Spring Risotto with Ramps, Asparagus and Morels

PG tested

On Sunday morning, April 3, a cold and cloudy early spring day, I led my wife and son, Jesse, to a place in the woods where I hadn't been in a long time. I wasn't sure whether I'd find what I was looking for, but there, poking up through the brown dead leaves were bright green spikes of -- wild leeks!

They were sprouting and sprouting in great abundance in a spot where I'd found them years earlier. Using trowels from my father's garage, Jesse and I worked at digging up a clump. And then another clump, being careful to replant some of the young plants.

I showed Jesse how to tug them from the cold earth by holding them firmly around their reddish necks, and we slid them into a plastic bag that oozed their sharp, garlic-onion scent.

Later, I thought about the cycle that Jesse was repeating, going back nearly 50 years, when the great-grandfather for whom he is named used to take my dad and mom out into the woods and dig what they called wild leeks.

It was with that thought that I cleaned and chopped them for this ramp recipe, which I made for my dad and the rest of my family for a cookout later that Sunday, which turned warm and sunny -- a beautiful spring day.

As published, the title has this recipe made with peas instead of asparagus, but it would be delicious with either, or both.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup trimmed and roughly chopped ramps
  • 2 cups asparagus pieces (1 inch)
  • 7 cups homemade or reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups short grain risotto rice, such as arborio or carnaroli
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup dried morels, soaked in 2 cups hot water for 30 minutes and cut into 1/4-inch slices (strain and reserve the soaking liquid)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to taste
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a medium saute pan, heat the butter until foaming, then add the ramps and saute until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the asparagus and saute another 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

Bring the broth almost to a boil in a large pot. Reduce the heat to very low; the broth should stay hot but not simmer.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy 3- to 4-quart straight-sided saute pan at least 10 inches wide or in a similar-sized Dutch oven. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook slowly, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the water, lower the heat to medium low and continue cooking until the water is completely gone and the onion is soft and glistening but not browned, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the rice to the pan and raise the heat to medium. Cook, stirring constantly, to coat the rice with the oil, about 3 minutes. Toasted rice should still be white and glistening, but you should hear a clicking sound when you stir it.

Pour in the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until it's mostly absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir the mushrooms and their soaking liquid into the rice and cook, stirring, until the liquid is mostly absorbed.

Ladle in 1 1/2 to 2 cups broth to barely cover the rice and stir constantly. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and keep stirring. When all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is dry enough that your stirring spoon leaves a trail showing the bottom of the pot, ladle in another cup of broth, again stirring until it's all absorbed. Continue adding broth in 1-cup increments, always stirring, until the rice is nearly but not fully al dente; this is usually 12 to 16 minutes after the first addition of liquid.

When the risotto is a few minutes away from al dente, stir in the sauteed ramps and asparagus.

After you've added 5 cups of liquid (16 to 20 minutes from the first liquid addition), taste the rice to determine if it's al dente and pleasantly creamy. If it is, remove it immediately from the heat. Otherwise, let it cook a little longer, incorporating more broth. Gently stir in the cheese and parsley and serve immediately.

Serves 6.

-- "Fine Cooking in Season: Your Guide to Choosing and Preparing the Season's Best" by editors and contributors of Fine Cooking (Taunton, $22.95)

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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