Before the Appalachian Outlaws on the History Channel were cavorting about and foraging for ginseng, the folks in West Virginia were digging up the ramps that grow in abundance in the higher elevations. Ramps are one of the first things to pop out of the soil, unpropagated – usually around April 12, but a bit later this year. Ramps, in the leek family, known for their earthy, pungent, garlicky (some say stinky) aroma that clings to your breath, have become all the rage with chefs.
When celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten wanted some for his restaurants back around 2005, greens-grower Nancy MacNamara of Honey Locust Farm in Newburgh drove to Helvetia, West Virginia, way up in the mountains, to procure some firsthand. MacNamara never got to dig for any, as that is a job for the men in the early Appalachian morning. The women did all the cooking for the ramp dinners held there for years. Cookbook author Sally Schneider has been going there for the ramps and friendships since the ’70s.
Every year in Helvetia, there is a ramp dinner feast and everyone gets to eat a “mess of ramps.” The place turns into a giant family reunion with lots of traditional fiddle music, dancing and food. Volunteers show up to clean over 60 bushels of ramps. A supper of ramps fried in bacon grease, country ham, fried potatoes, beans, cabbage, cornbread, cole slaw, applesauce and sassafras tea is the usual fare. Swiss immigrants originally settled in the town in the 1860s and have kept up their traditions. Ramp festivals have spread to other Appalachian communities in West Virginia. The folks there believe that ramps have tonic properties; we know that they are high in vitamins C and A.
Ramps also grow in the Catskill Mountains. Take a hike and see what you can find. They do risk being overharvested. It has been recommended by trained foragers to take the leaves and leave the bulbs so that they can reproduce. The leaves resemble lily-of-the-valley and the bulb looks like a scallion. “Treat them delicately,” advises MacNamara, “and tenderly. Washing and packing them is an art.” Wherever you would use onions, you can use ramps. The most popular are pickled ramps, usually in a sugar/salt/vinegar solution with a variety of seed spices.
The fifth annual RampFest will take place on Saturday, May 2 from 12 to 4 p.m. at Basilica Hudson, located at 110 South Front Street in Hudson. A bevy of restaurant chefs will be participating and creating original ramp dishes: Swoon Kitchenbar with chef and Ramp Fest founder Jeff Gimmel (Hudson); Jodi Cummings of Glynwood (Cold Spring); Wilson Costa of Ca’Mea (Hudson); Zak Pelaccio of Fish and Game (Hudson); John McCarthy of the Crimson Sparrow (Hudson); Alvaro Medina of Truck Pizza (Hudson); Kevin Katz of the Red Onion (Saugerties); Job Yacubian of the Farmer’s Wife (Ancramdale); Justin Bazdarich of Speedy Romeo (Brooklyn); R. L. King of Gallow Green (New York); Nick Suarez of Backyard Cooking Company (Tivoli); Jamie Parry of Another Fork in the Road (Milan); Hugh Horner of Helsinki Hudson (Hudson); Marc Propper of Miss Lucy’s Kitchen (Saugerties); Gianni Scappin of Market Street (Rhinebeck) and Cucina (Woodstock); Bob Turner of Omega (Rhinebeck); and Rei Peraza of Panzur (Tivoli).
Be ready to participate in a conversation about our region’s strengths, potential, sustainable agriculture, community, energy and their interconnectedness. Representatives of environmentally conscious organizations like Glynwood, Hawthorne Valley, Camphill Village and Green Mountain Energy will be there. Hawthorne Valley Farm will demonstrate pickling and preserving ramps. Glynwood will educate everyone about sustainable ramp harvesting.
Tickets cost $30 advance, $35 at the door and $10 for kids under age 12. For more information, visit www.rampfesthudson.com.
If you want to try them on your own, here is a simplified riff on the classic Chinese scallion pancake substituting wild ramps for scallions. They are quite addictive and easy to make.
WILD RAMP PANCAKE
Adapted from Diana Kuan
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup warm water, from the tap
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil, plus
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
4-5 ramps, cleaned and chopped
1 teaspoon coarse salt (Malden or kosher)
1 teaspoon crushed red chilies (optional)
1) In a bowl, mix the flour and water together to form a soft, pliable dough. Add a bit more flour, if necessary. The dough shouldn’t be sticky or stiff.
2) Knead the dough on a floured surface for about five minutes. You can even bang and twist it. Shape into a flat disc. Using your hands, cover the dough with a light coating of about one teaspoon of grapeseed oil. Place in a bowl and cover with a damp cloth for about 30 minutes.
3) Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a long tube shape about one inch thick. Slice into three two-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Dust a rolling pin with flour and roll out each section into about a five-inch disc.
4) Brush the disc with roasted sesame oil, then sprinkle the ramps, salt and chilies, if using. Now roll up, gently, from one side. Make sure the ramps stay inside the roll. Take one end and curl the dough into a spiral, then tuck the tail on the bottom inside. Lightly flatten with your hand. With the floured rolling pin, roll the spiral into a five-inch disc, nice and thin. Place on a plate. Continue rolling out the rest of the dough in the same manner. (If you place a piece of parchment or waxed paper between each one, you can freeze them and cook later.)
5) Heat a non-stick or cast-iron skillet to medium/high. Add a tablespoon of grapeseed oil (about 1/8th inch of oil) to warm, then pan-fry the pancake until well-browned on each side. The oil should sizzle on the edge of the pancake. Don’t walk away, as it could easily burn. Shake the pan to release some steam for the breads to puff up. Take out and cut into wedges. Eat alone or with a soy dipping sauce (two tablespoons of soy sauce, one teaspoon rice vinegar, grated ginger, honey, a splash of roasted sesame oil).
RampFest, Saturday, May 2, 12 noon to 4 p.m., Basilica Hudson, 110 South Front Street, Hudson; www.rampfesthudson.com.