By Erica Bonelli
In each column, A Word on Food will give you a term that will make your mouth water. Happy eating.
Ramp [rămp]: A plant (Allium tricoccum) of the eastern United States having small bulbs and young leaves that are edible and have a pungent onion-like flavor. Also called wild leek. (American Heritage Dictionary)
Origin: Old English
In early April, chefs, foodies and mortals alike emerge from root vegetable hibernation to hear the first bird song of spring announced not by the changing temperatures nor by Punxsutawney Phil failing to see his shadow (does this ever happen?), but by the first tender leafy shoots of green just barely poking out of the warm Georgia soil: the ramp.
The ramp, commonly mistaken for the rotting piece of wood sitting in your garage from your skater days, is in fact a wild onion native to North America that is like a mix of a leek and garlic. It is sweet and pungent at the same time, but its flavor is far more pronounced than either of its oniony cousins. It has the shape of a leek with a slender white bulb that gives way to a deep red stem and two emerald green leaves. The ramp, while still maybe unfamiliar to most, has taken the culinary world by storm in the past five years, even inciting riots in some farmer’s markets and creating a black market for ramps in Quebec. Bon Appetit compares searching for ramps at the farmer’s market to shopping on Black Friday.
Ramps are found from Georgia all the way up to Canada, and even as far west as Oklahoma, but nowhere is as amped for ramps as Richwood, West Virginia, the self-proclaimed ramp capital of the world. This town hosts a ramp festival and has even named a “King of the Ramps.” So why all the hype?
Though ramps have been around in Appalachian cuisine for decades, the rise of farm-to-table movements, foraging and an obsession with seasonal cooking have driven a ramp craze that can’t be controlled. Each spring, chefs around the country, like chef Marc Forgione of Michelin, starred New York City restaurant Marc Forgione, try to create the next best dish using this aromatic favorite.
First ramps!!! Herb crusted lamb and tartare, rosemary onion purée, natural jus, scallion flowers. @marcforgione pic.twitter.com/LfcwPebUDV
— Marc Forgione (@MarcForgione) March 30, 2014
Part of the ramps’ allure is its scarcity. Once mid-May comes around, the once ramp-filled kitchens would be lucky to have a few bulbs left.
“It’s like that elusive thing — the bad boyfriend, the jazzy car of the vegetable world,” Dana Cowin, former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine told AP.
So how can you jump on the ramp bandwagon? Ramps pair well with pastas when made into a pesto, with mushrooms, in stir fry and with pork dishes when pickled. Start by trying this 15-minute recipe that sneaks ramps into everyone’s favorite carb and cheese combo: the quesadilla.
Yield: Makes 2 quesadillas, serving 2 to 4
● 2 ounces fresh or cured chorizo, diced or crumbled finely
● 16 ramps, washed, trimmed, whites finely chopped, greens roughly chopped
● Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
● 4 ounces (about 1 cup) grated Jack, Cheddar, or Oaxacan string cheese
● 2 (10-inch) flour tortillas
● 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Heat chorizo in a 10-inch non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until fat has rendered and chorizo is browned and crisp, about 4 minutes. Transfer chorizo to a large bowl, leaving rendered fat in skillet.
2. Return to medium-high heat until fat is lightly smoking. Add ramps, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Transfer to bowl with chorizo and wipe out skillet.
3. Add cheese to bowl with chorizo and ramps and toss with hands to combine. Spread half of cheese mixture over one half of one tortilla, leaving a small border around the edge. Fold tortilla firmly in half to enclose the cheese. Repeat with remaining tortilla.
4. Heat oil in a 10-inch nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Carefully add both folded tortillas to skillet and cook, shaking pan gently until first side is golden brown and puffed, 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully flip tortillas with a flexible slotted spatula, sprinkle with salt, and cook on second side until golden brown and puffed, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and allow to rest 1 minutes. Cut each into four pieces and serve.
Want to try more? Here are some of the tastiest ramp recipes, courtesy of Serious Eats. And if cooking isn’t really your thing, don’t worry; Eater created a heat map of restaurants serving ramps in Washington.