Ramps! Like snails, buttermilk or sweet breads, you either covet these “acquired tastes” or detest the very thought of them. I know people that would rather experience water boarding than consume ramps. Me? I love these little lilies, but I think I’m genetically predisposed to do so.
Let me explain.
My paternal grandparents hailed from Richwood, a small mountain village on the shores of the Cherry River. In the days before air-conditioning, I spent many happy summer days there, escaping the heat and humidity of my Harrison County hometown.
The legendary stories about Richwood and ramps are many, outrageous and sometimes true. The late Jim Comstock, publisher of the now defunct West Virginia Hillbilly newspaper, chronicled many of these tales in his publication. Here is a story that proves the old saying: “truth is stranger than fiction.” In this instance, Comstock became the lead character in a story that made nationwide headlines.
A few decades back, Jim Comstock literally created a national stink when he added ramps to the printers ink for one edition of his newspaper. The Hillbilly had subscribers all over the country and even in foreign lands. The US Postal service was not amused and Comstock almost went to jail, but it sure did put his town and ramps on the map.
I cannot ever remember my grandmother cooking me up a mess of ramps during my idyllic summertime visits to Richwood, and it wasn’t until years later that I tasted them for the first time. But when I did, I was hooked after that first bite. That was years ago when I was home on leave from the Army, and about to be deployed overseas.
It happened late one evening when my next door neighbor brought over a six-pack (or so) of beer and a bundle of ramps. He suggested the best way to enjoy the little buggers was to sprinkle them with salt and eat them raw. Love at first bite? You bet. So we ate the entire bunch of ramps, chasing them down with several brews until the wee hours of the morning.
Well, I awoke that next day shivering. It seems my mother had opened every window and door in the house in a vain attempt to rid the abode of a foul odor permeating the place. I looked out the window and there was mom with a large container of Lysol spraying the stuff into the house from the outside. To put it mildly: there are better, far less offensive, ways to consume ramps- and without violating the EPA’s clean air act.
We are now in the midst of ramp season and many towns in the state, particularly in the mountains, are holding ramp feeds. However, I am not a fan of the traditional manner in which they are prepared. Most cooks fry them in lard or bacon grease and then add them to potatoes or (worse) pinto beans. This can cause folks to leave the events belching and flatulent while vowing never to get within a country mile of a ramp.
I prefer to sauté them in olive or canola oil and then add them to just about any vegetable dish from asparagus to potatoes to zucchini. There are also excellent grilled to accompany steak and can be added to scrambled eggs. I have also made them the key component of a pasta dish in which they are tossed with pancetta, asparagus and parmesan cheese in a white wine and olive oil sauce.
Sauvignon blanc is my favorite wine to accompany just about any ramp dish. I suggest pairing the above pasta recipe with the 2014 William Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($17) or the 2014 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc ($30).
So give ramps a try, but not at a one of the ubiquitous feeds where their flavor is obscured in pinto beans or fried potatoes. Simply sauté them in small amount of oil and add them to your vegetable dishes or pasta. Like onions and garlic, ramps are much less pungent when cooked and really do enhance the flavor of just about any dish.