Monday, May 3, 2010

Market Report: Rampage

It seems like only a few days ago that I noticed the first crocus buds poking up from the earth of sidewalk plots. Thin spears of daffodils followed, and by Easter, New Yorkers lucky enough to boast gardens were awash with hyacinths and narcissus. And then, quietly and suddenly, the trees exploded into a riot of pink and cherry blossom season was upon us.

I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time in Brooklyn recently, as The Dinner Belle looks for our very own catering kitchen. I’ve also been drawn across the river by the simple pursuit of good food. From wood-fired pizza in Bushwick to airy cafés in Cobble Hill, the Blue Bottle launch in Williamsburg and the opening of Fatty ‘Cue just up the road, Brooklyn never tasted so good. Last weekend, baited with the promise of cherry blossoms and butterscotch shakes at Bark in Park Slope, I exited the Grand Army Plaza subway station in the confident expectation of a thoroughly satisfying outer-borough afternoon.

I was barely inside the gates of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden before the riot of color began, first heavily scented lilacs, then clusters of heavy pink cherry blossoms like scoops of strawberry ice cream. After taking a turn through the Japanese Garden and filling my camera with flowers, I wended my way back to the Plaza and its Saturday Greenmarket. Mimicking the abundance of the garden, the market overflowed with pots of spring flowers. On the produce side, however, despite rows of greenhouse-sprouted herbs and piles of collards, I was mostly left facing dusty bins of last year’s bruised apples.

But then, turning a corner between bulbous turnips and new potatoes, I saw a patch of green. The ramps, imbued with the same transitory spring vigor as the cherry blossoms, were gathered up even before I’d formulated a recipe. Throughout the rest of my afternoon as I walked and window shopped on “the other” 5th Avenue, the pungent scent of the wild leeks wafted out of my bag, as if to remind me that here, at last, spring had come.

I may be a Manhattanite, but I have never been a blind follower of trends. In this age of sold-out CSAs and underground raw milk delivery, food trends are as unavoidable as leggings, and for the past few years, ramps have consistently placed at the top of that list. I’ll admit having gone to Eat restaurant in Greenpoint recently where ramps made it into every single dish, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and having excitedly ordered a sublimely rich fettucine alfredo with ramps off the rampalicious tasting menu at Commerce a few weeks back. But what I will never do is suggest that an ingredient is better, tastier, or more relevant than it really is.

So how popular are ramps? And do they deserve their praise?

Like the Greta Gerwig of the plant kingdom, you’d heard of their work before, but may not have been quite sure what they looked like. And then suddenly, this spring, they were everywhere. Of course, ramps, otherwise known as wild leeks or spring onions, are well known outside of the city. When the mother of a friend, visiting from Vermont, spied my Greenmarket bounty after returning home from BK, she moaned “Oh honey, why didn’t you tell me? I would have brought some down for you.”

(The “trick”, she promised, is to “keep a pitchfork in your car at all times. Then when you’re driving around and you see a patch by the side of the road, you can loosen the roots around them and pull them up whole.”)

After this lecture I felt a bit like a city slicker, a sucker who had just cheerfully shelled out $16 for a pound of what essentially amounted to side-of-the-road weeds (pro tip: two vendors at Union Square have been selling ramps all month for a much more bearable $3/bunch). After all, ramps have their detractors as well as their besotted fans, and this spring has become a boxing match for ramp critics. In one corner, Steve Cuozzo of The Post has stated that he’d “rather eat wild grass on the High Line”; in the other, Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice unabashedly illustrated an entire menu based on ramps, one involving stuffing, roasting, mashing, infusing and pickling. Marc Forgione has just introduced a seven-course ramp tasting menu at his eponymous restaurant, and Telepan’s five-course menu includes not only ramps, but morels, fiddleheads and nettles as well.

Undaunted, I composed my odoriferous weeds into a two-course menu of my own making: To start, sautéed whole ramps on fresh mozzarella di bufala with olio nuovo olive oil and aged fig vin cotto, and to follow, linguine with clams and a simple ramp pesto with pecorino. The ramps were bright, flavorful, and just a teensy bit wild, and I’m unembarrassed to admit that I ate most of my meal standing up, too absorbed to even carry my plate to the table.

Nursing my sustainably-farmed California wine, I reflected a bit on the spring onion invasion and decided our city’s preoccupation is somewhat self-centered. While our critics have challenged the validity of the hype and the ramp’s pervasion within our menus (as if New York alone had claims on the phenomenon), there is a whole country out there going wild for wild leeks. As a Southern friend of mine confided to me, in West Virginia ramps are so prized that schoolchildren get the day off to go to a festival in their name. Somewhere in northern Vermont, a woman is carrying a pitchfork around in the back of her Subaru for the express purpose of ramp-digging. And if you really want to pluck your own, you can go foraging for them in the Bronx.

Ramps are indeed the first of the spring bounty, and there is nothing more honest than treating them with the same childlike glee with which we greet the first cherry blossoms. It’s exciting, this earliest growth, and it’s something worth celebrating on our plates because they won’t stick around for long. But truth be told, I think the best bit about ramp season is what comes next. Forbearers of spring, ramps are ultimately a preamble to summer’s unstinted harvest. I like ramps, but I love tomatoes, and honestly, how much can anyone really obsess over an onion?

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2 Responses to “Market Report: Rampage”

  1. Seth

    Ramps are also amazing when they’re dried – their flavor mellows almost like a well roasted garlic, perfect with a good sharp cheese. As Pollan points out – it’s great to have friends who know how to find fresh ramps, nettles, and chanterelles…

  2. Kimberly Belle

    Great pointer, Seth! I’m gonna follow your lead and dry out and any leftover ramps I collect this season so I can make ramp omelets come winter!!!

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