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Chef John Foster: behold the elusive ramp; a kitchen delight that is here and gone in the blink of an eye

It’s quite possible that by the time this column is read, the subject of the column will be no longer available.

As changeable as the spring weather, and as elusive as a sunny day in spring, the ramp is for a brief moment the most important food item of the new season. That last statement might be a bit of hyperbole, but in my kitchens, the arrival and departure of the ramp, within the space of a few weeks is rivaled only by the short local seasons of asparagus and berries that will come later in the year.

Not only is the ramp a harbinger of spring, but it represents the first of many items foraged rather than cultivated. For some chefs that is a nightmare, the inconsistencies of the product blowing large holes in their menus.

For other more mobile spots, the ramp, the wild mushrooms, and foraged items in general are a link to the distant past when the element of surprise was a shot of creative juice to the soul of the chef. What do I have here, wrapped in soggy newspaper? Ramps? Morels? Chicken of the woods?

How can I pair them, what is the best way to highlight this transient piece of gold?

It’s a puzzle that I would gladly work on a daily basis. I have often toyed with the idea that I should simply list my ingredients on a sheet of paper and let my guests choose the dish.

On days when I have very little, the options are limited. But consider a Saturday evening in July, what might that list look like, and what have I gotten myself into now?

That’s the reasoning behind specials, and that’s why when you serve local fare the arrival of something as simple as ramps can be a godsend. Just last weekend a local farmer came for lunch, and in a conversation happened to mention that they had ramps on their truck. Minutes later I was in possession of 5lbs. of beautiful ramps, picked within the last 24 hours.

In the space of two services I had found a half dozen instances to use those ramps for specials. Pan roasted snapper with ramp butter, ramp pesto with house made fettuccine, ramp, local shitake mushrooms and local spinach risotto with asiago. Each dish a little different, each dish pulling something out of the ramp that was a twist on what the plant has to offer.

But what exactly is it that makes a ramp so appealing?

There is the element of elusiveness, ramps pop up in various areas along the eastern seaboard in the spring and then without warning they’re gone until the next year. There is a certain mystery to their make-up, with some foragers claiming that fields of ramps will keep ticks, mosquitos and even snakes away.

There is some scientific evidence to suggest that ramps have health benefits in the diet and that they are loaded with beneficial minerals that lead to their traditional use as a tonic to “cure” springtime ailments. Beyond the science and folklore, the culinary attributes of the ramp run parallel to the other alliums that make up its extended family.

Shaped like a spring onion with a full crown, the ramp is tied to the lily family as well, making the entire plant edible and striking on the plate. Roasting fish or chicken on a bed of ramps not only imbues the dish with a mix of fresh garlic and onion, but the visual effect is one of a cocoon of flavor surrounding the entire plate.

The flavor of the ramp is most often the focal point of the argument for or against the plant. It can be too aggressive for some, taking the spring onion and tripling the effect it has on the palate. Farmers avoid certain pastures in the spring as their dairy cows will eat so many ramps that their milk is tinged with onion.

Like any onion, the cooking process tames the flavor a bit, but the effects can last nonetheless. Taken in small doses though the ramp, because of it visual make-up is much more versatile in plating. Sometimes compared to a leek it can have some of the same qualities of ruggedness and full plant presentation that make a grilled or roasted leek so impressive on the plate.

Take the ramps as a bunch of perhaps a dozen same sized plants, dress them lightly with olive oil, salt and cracked black pepper, and grill them until they start to wilt, and the tips of the leaves darken.

Wrap them in some parchment paper (or newspaper in the old days) and let them finish cooking that way. Serve with a spicy relish or spread on crusty bread.

Because of the large leaves that top the ramp they are used quite often as a green, like a rabe, as in broccoli rabe. Although nowhere near as bitter, the greens of a ramp hold up well to a sauté or even a quick braise. Old cookbook recipes from Appalachia suggested stewing them with bacon, much like a traditional green, and serving them with beans and cornbread, which suggests the simple origins of the plant.

Ramps are foraged food, harvested in a short spring window. They don’t keep well, unless pickled but they are a renewable resource that many families were and are dependent on. I stop short of saying they are peasant food, especially when good ramps can fetch up to $18 a pound, but they are generational food, as in passed down from cook to cook, and their regionality supports the broad claim that they belong to the cuisine of self-sufficient people first and foremost.

The fact that ramps have made the jump to some of the finest restaurants in the biggest cities speaks volumes about the versatility and allure of the plant.

So, take a chance on the ramps, before they disappear for the year. Treat them initially like a green onion, but don’t stop there. I’ll pickle them for a martini, and then turn around and add them to a salsa.

Make an impression in a salad, with the leaves as the base with spring spinach and the bulbs bruised with vinegar to make a pungent vinaigrette. Toss them in a pasta as part of the classic piccata or fold some grilled ramps into an omelet with blue cheese and bacon. Don’t hesitate, ramps are not for the timid, push that envelope and you won’t be disappointed.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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