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December 20, 2014
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Take a walk on the wild side

Ramps are wild leeks, distant cousins of asparagus. They are harvested by foraging in the wild and cannot be cultivated, although they can be transplanted into appropriate soil and shade conditions.
Contributed photo


Ramps. I’ve heard the word bandied about for years here in the country, but until now, was completely ignorant about them. With the onset of gorgeous weather and the shedding of the coats, I decided that rather than relying on armchair research, I’d head out for Ramps Fest in Callicoon, NY (www.visitcallicoon.com) to see what all the fuss is about.

Camera in hand and Wonder Dog at my side, I arrived prepared, having jotted down a few questions in my notebook, assuming I’d run into some people who were more informed than I. By foregoing research on the Internet, I was flying blind, but instead of being frightened (admittedly, I’m a little delicate) I felt free and unencumbered, ready to tackle the subject through honest-to-goodness human interaction. What a concept.

I glanced at my notes and reviewed the first deep, probing question: What are ramps? Stopping at the information booth (www.sullivancountyfarmersmarket.org) to inquire, market manager Danielle Gaebel took me by the hand and escorted me to “ramps expert” Jen McGlashan from Channery Hill Farm (check them out on Facebook) who was engaging a small crowd with her excitement over the green, leafy, funny-looking plants that appeared to be the star attraction.

McGlashan noticed me scribbling away and snapping pics, so she waved me over and happily answered some of my queries. “They’re wild leeks,” she said, “related to asparagus; they grow very slowly in the forest, from late April to early May.” That sounded like a fairly brief window of opportunity for harvest and Jen concurred. “Ramps have become the quintessential great fad local to this region,” she explained. “They really can’t be commercially cultivated, take up to seven years to mature, are only found in the wild and are native to this area.” I learned that McGlashan is one of a group known as Slow-Food UpDeRiVa and asked about the odd name. “We’re the local chapter of Slow Food USA,” she explained, “and it means Upper Delaware River Valley.” Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather, since I’ve written those words more than a few times. “Man, I am slow on the uptake,” I thought and wrote it down again, lest I forget.

Doing my best to sound like an investigative journalist, I soldiered on. “The plant doesn’t look all that impressive,” I suggested. “What’s so special about it?” McGlashan laughed, nodding her head. “I think the best part about them is that they’re incredibly flavorful and can be used in a variety of ways.” North Branch resident Wendee Greene chimed in, declaring that ramps are “a harbinger of spring,” before Maria Grimaldi waved me over. “I think it’s important to note that Ramps Fest gives us an appreciation of the wonderful things that nature provides,” she shared. “We need to raise awareness of that, and the need to conserve and protect our environment.” With that I set out to peruse the vendors and their ramps-laden treasures before the recipe contest began.

I stopped and chatted with Marion Kasselle (www.facebook.com/Maynard-Farms), who recommended the three-cheese ramp turnovers from a booth down the way (www.brandenbergpastry.com). Turning the corner, I bumped into a grinning Kazzrie Jaxen (www.kazzriejaxenquartet.com) having just eaten some ramp ravioli. “We only have a short time to ‘amp up the ramp,’” she laughed, “and I’ve heard it’s really good in eggs, so I’m off to whip up an omelet.” Speaking for myself, I’m pretty useless in the kitchen (OK, hold the jokes) and so it seemed wise to ask a professional’s opinion on the mighty ramp. I headed for the judging arena where I found chef and celebrity judge Peter Yurasits. Specializing in weddings and corporate functions, he revealed that he (www.finefoodaffairs.com) has added ramps in chocolate truffles, and on this particular Sunday “in honor of Cinco de Mayo,” he had macerated (Hmm, I learned a new word) ramps in tequila. “Finally, (IMHO) a practical application for this darn plant,” I thought, happily accepting the sample that Yurasits proffered before he and co-judge Jane Bollinger sampled dishes prepared with the local delicacy. Slow Food’s Sally Ann Parsons won the day with her ramp corn bread, made entirely with local ingredients—well, except for the brown sugar. From what I gathered, everything was delish. I still need to investigate the Ramp Tramp (a forager’s expedition that happened the day before), and McGlashan whispered something about next year’s Ramp Vamp, so my appetite has been properly whetted and I’m guessing that there’s more to learn. For now, the window of opportunity has closed. Long live the ramp.