Appreciation for the ramson dates back to Elizabethan England, and the same wild leek, under its American name the ramp, has been ever-popular among the common folk. But it’s only relatively recently that Allium tricoccum has become the darling of the culinary world in the urban and suburban Northeast.
In Waynesville, North Carolina, they’re throwing their 79th annual Ramp Festival this year with bluegrass and clogging. In Cosby, Tennessee, their 59-year-old fest crowns a Ramp Queen and serves the wild veggie raw, fried, boiled, sautéed, jellied, as pickles, in soups and salads and with eggs or potatoes. All over Appalachia, country folk have been enjoying them for a long time at festivals and community ramp dinners, and are now getting a big kick over how all the fancy-schmancy city chefs fuss over them these days.
Elegant and earthy ramps, looking like scallions but with purple necks and big flat leaves, are tremendously versatile. Like their kin garlic, onions and leeks, they enhance nearly everything, adding depth and savor with a hint of sweetness.
If you find a patch of wild leeks, you’re lucky (beware lookalikes that don’t smell oniony); or if you find some in a store and can afford them, act fast, because they’re only around for a few weeks. Then take them home and cook them simply: grilled or sautéed in olive oil or the traditional way, in bacon grease. Or spend a little time and invent a pasta sauce with ramps as centerpiece or adjunct. Make a quiche or a savory tart, maybe with a bit of cheese. Ramps are good with mild starches to back them up: sautéed with homefries, in a risotto, in or over a grits casserole.
The celebrating of “Tennessee truffles” has migrated northeast in the last few years. Our own young ramp festival, on Saturday, May 4 in Hudson, will only be three this year, and kicks things up with some much more sophisticated takes on making the most of the sweetly spicy onion relative.
“We’ll have the best chefs in the Hudson Valley, and Manhattan and Brooklyn,” says chef Jeff Gimmel, owner of Swoon Kitchenbar and creator of the event. He will be offering socca crepes (made with chickpea flour, like in Nice, France) with lamb’s tongue and grilled ramp romesco sauce.
Chef Gimmel says that the fest has been very enthusiastically received. “Attendance doubled from the first year to the second,” he notes, “and the number of participating chefs and restaurants has increased.” This year there will be 21. “It’s a great value for the day,” he adds, “like getting a 21-course tasting menu for only $30.”
You can try Applewood’s ramp vichyssoise with ramp oil, and then the Red Dot’s ramp risotto. Another Fork in the Road will be serving a semolina-and-ramp biscuit with pulled rabbit and ramp agrodolce. Gallow Green will offer a charred-ramp-and-Carolina-rice custard with ramp pesto, and the Farmer’s Wife tea sandwiches of pork lomo, radish and mint with ramp aioli. Gigi Hudson Valley Mediterranean will have a sfeefa (meat pie) with Meiller Farm zatar-spiced beef ragu and pickled ramps.
Some of the other participants – from Hudson and farther afield – will include Fish & Game with Zakary Pelaccio and Jori Jayne Emde, Blueberry Hill Market Café, Ca’Mea, Club Helsinki, the Crimson Sparrow, the Farm on Adderley, Fresh Company, Miss Lucy’s Kitchen, Red Onion and Speedy Romeo.
The focus this year is on sustainability. Since ramps have taken off in popularity, there is a fear that this wild treat will become overharvested and scarce, so the food at the fest is intended to be leaf only, in order to keep the bulbs in the ground to make new ramps for future years. Also, each sample will be served on a sheet of parchment that is placed on a bamboo plate that tasters take from chef to chef.
Ramps are not for the faint of heart; as much as some of us adore them, others shy away from their lingering taste and aroma, steering clear of anyone who has had a bite. “[Ramps are] not for ladies or those who court them,” said one anonymous gentleman who was quoted in The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (Gramercy Books, 1984). But if you’re brave enough to try this ephemeral delicacy and explore the myriad things that chefs do with them, visit Ramp Fest Hudson from 12 noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 4 at Basilica Hudson at 110 Front Street. Tickets are limited, and will cost $30 in advance or $35 at the door, $10 for kids under age 12. There will be live music and a cash bar. See www.rampfesthudson.com for more information or advance tickets.