Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ramping up

I wrote a story for The Tennessean recently about going on a ramp hunt with pork guru Allan Benton and a crew of about seven other writers, eaters and chefs.

This is Allan.
These are ramps.
Now here's the part I don't mention in the article.

I decided to write it as a “lessons learned” story, because on the day of the hunt I nearly ran out of gas on the drive and derailed picnic plans for our entire caravan. Allan had packed a truckload of bacon, cornbread, potatoes and trout to cook creekside with our ramps, and our ramp-hunting crew had come from Asheville, N.C., and Birmingham (from Southern Living headquarters), and Charleston, S.C., for this event and meal, so putting a damper on it would have been extremely uncool.

Even worse, we had stopped at a gas station just before heading up the mountain. I guess I was so excited to be hanging with Allan that I didn’t even look at my gas gauge. I also naively thought the hour-long drive each way up mountain roads would be much shorter. I grew up in the country! I ought to know better!

Alas I had to break the news to Allan when we were standing on top of the mountain that I had been running on fumes (of mostly anxiety and prayers to the Exxon gods), because I wasn’t sure – even if I coasted – that I would make it to the bottom. But he was so calm and cool. I remember him just looking at me and taking a minute to reply in his endearing Droopy-the-Dog drawl.

“Jennifer…if you run out of gas….we’ll just leave your car….and go down the mountain…. and get you some gas…and come back….and fill it up.”

It was a classic “tame the dragon” moment. After imagining the worst-case scenario -- and walking through what would happen – I realized that things are never as bad as they seem. It was one of many lessons that day.

Take it easy.

Be cool.

But be prepared.

Allan and his wife Sharon frying bacon and country ham.
Prep for potatoes and ramps.

A quest for ramps teaches life lessons: Hunt for simple plant teaches lessons about more than food

By Jennifer Justus, The Tennessean

He's been called the Prince of Pork, Boss Hog and the Pork Whisperer. From his humble shop in Madisonville, Tenn., Allan Benton has earned celebrity status among the chef-and-foodie crowd nationwide for his bacon, country ham and Tennessee prosciutto.

But on a spring Sunday afternoon near his home, Benton took a break from the smokehouse to take us hunting for another of his favorite down-home delicacies: ramps.

The plant, which is like a pungent leek-garlic hybrid, grows wild in cooler, higher elevations from the Southeastern United States up through Canada. Traditionally chopped and sauteed with eggs or potatoes in Appalachian regions, ramps also have been celebrated in higher-end restaurants in recent years as pickled garnishes for meats or spun into soups.

To fully appreciate what it can bring to a dish, it's best to follow an expert. And in this case, that meant going up a mountain.

So as a small crew of writers, chefs and enthusiastic eaters gathered to fuel up on gas for a climb up the Smoky Mountains near Madisonville, Benton offered his first tip of the day — a reminder that dads packing for road trips have been issuing for eons.

"Even if you don't have to go — go," he said, gesturing toward the restrooms. "Because after this, we go where the bears go."

Turns out it would be one of many lessons Benton would offer throughout the day. But his advice went beyond the basic — and even further than the best way to smoke a ham. These were life lessons. And the first? Be prepared.

In the back of his truck he had ramp-hunting tools (garden hoes and trash bags) along with two iron skillets the size of manhole covers, two camp stoves, two pones of cornbread, several slabs of pork, and a cooler of cold drinks. A feast would follow the hunt.

So with his truck stocked and fueled, we climbed to the mountain's bald where the wind whipped and whistled. Then as we stepped over the guardrail, the climate changed. Within a few yards we were under a green canopy of trees. It was darker, cooler and quieter — a place that seems to always smell like you've just missed the rain. We shimmied down the steep grade –— some more gracefully than others — as Benton issued his second lesson from behind the group.

"Guys, this is not a race," he said. "New York City, this is not."

Lesson 2. Slow down. Be patient.

About 20 years ago, a friend of Benton's took him "ramping" for the first time. As an avid fly-fisherman who loves the streams and woods, he took to it instantly. But on this Sunday it was a first-time experience for some, including chef Matt Bolus. The Knoxville native, who was working at a Charleston, S.C., restaurant at the time, will begin his new position as executive chef with Watermark in Nashville this week. And though ramping was new to him, he's no stranger to Benton or his products.

"I've used Benton's bacon the last three restaurants I've been," he said. "We used to go by there on the way to go trout fishing on the Tellico River."

The ramp hunt, though, was an unexpected experience for Bolus.

"I was coming up to Knoxville to see my parents," he said. "I called Allan to see if he was gonna be in (his shop). He said, 'I'm going ramp hunting so I won't be around, but why don't you come with us?' "

And so to teach his method, Benton surveyed the blanket of mosses, roots and sprigs of green for our prized ramps. He pointed out stinging nettle, trillium, purple wild flowers and ferns. He got a thrill finding "Crow's Foot," a plant with a spicy kick like arugula that old-timers cook like collard greens.

It was the ramps we came for, though, and after a little more searching, Benton found some: They looked like tufts of green, growing in clumps with broad leaves. And to carry on with his lesson of patience, he showed us how ramps must be gently uprooted as not to break the buried bulbs from the sprouting leaves.

As we got the hang of it, we drifted in different directions. A peace settled over the group in the woods where the song is different from that of the whistling apex of a mountain where vegetation is more sparse. In the woods, it's just a crunch underfoot and chirp overhead.

We filled our bags and headed back to the guardrail at the top of the ridge. Bolus and Thomas Williams, of Nashville-based Cornbread Consulting, were proud of their haul. But with a wide grin, Benton opened their bags and began to toss most of the contents back to the earth.

"Lily, lily, lily, ramp, lily, lily, lily...," he said.

And so came lesson number three. No pretenders. Look for the real thing.

"Thomas and I thought we had the motherload," Bolus said.

Even with a deluge of lilies, plenty of ramps had been collected, too, so we headed back down the mountain for a picnic by the creek.

Part of what makes a ramp hunt so rewarding is the work before the payoff. At a campsite, we sprang into a different sort of action — cutting the roots off the bulbs and rinsing dirt from ramps in the creek, chopping potatoes, unloading stoves and cookware.

All the while, we traded stories on our first ramp-eating experiences. These days ramps can be found on high-end menus (much like Benton's bacon). The bulbs and leaves are pickled, sautéed and spun into soups. Jennifer Cole, an editor at Southern Living magazine, said she tasted
them for the first time at the James Beard House in New York City.

Others had eaten them more humbly. Benton said his daughter ate them nearly every day while in medical school until the other students began to notice the aroma emanating from her pores. A doctor pulled her aside to ask if "everything was OK."

"You can't eat them every day," he said.

On Benton's first ramp experience, he had eaten the powerful plant raw.

"I ate gobs of them," he said. "Sharon literally tried to get me to stay outside."

Sharon Benton fried bacon, and Bolus prepped trout and cornmeal sent over by chef John Fleer, who had planned to attend that day. Fleer, the Canyon Kitchen executive chef of Cashiers, N.C., had named and popularized Appalachian Foothills style of cuisine while at Blackberry Farm, the upscale East Tennessee resort. In doing so, he helped put Benton's bacon on the culinary map.

Benton's family from rural East Tennessee — no cars, no tractors — lived on what they raised. The family loved pork for its versatility. Benton said it's where he learned to know what tasted good and to recognize quality.

Before he met Fleer, though, Benton said he was barely getting by selling mostly to locals. When Fleer called from the posh Blackberry Farm to make his first order, Benton thought it was "just another greasy spoon."

Fleer, however, introduced it to the star chefs who would visit Blackberry, and word spread. Benton now sells to 30 restaurants in New York City alone, such as Momofuku and PDT, the trendy speakeasy where bartenders mix up a Benton's bacon cocktail.

You'd never know it to see his shop. Benton answers a rotary phone by a wall of yellowed business cards.

"It's just a hillbilly operation," he said.

Before the trip, Bolus said he had been anxious about cooking with Fleer, a chef he highly respects. But he soon learned — standing creekside with the Bentons cooking simple trout, potatoes with ramps and bacon that it wouldn't have mattered who showed nor what he

And there came the final lesson of the day. Appreciate the beauty in the basic. "It was just one of those days when simplicity rules," Bolus said.

Bolus went home to visit his parents after the hunt with about 5 pounds of ramps ("Mostly donated by Allan," he said). He made a salsa verde using the green leaves of the ramps instead of cilantro to top a steak. He cut up the bulbs the following morning for brunch, and he pickled the rest.

The chef said he plans to have ramps in the kitchen at Watermark, too, but he'll keep his philosophy simple like the afternoon when he pitched in to forage for ingredients, cook and share a meal.

"I went home and thought, 'Wow, not only did I learn something, but I'm inspired to get back to the essence of what food should be,' " he said. "And how to enjoy it."


Lilies, not ramps.

Matt Bolus, executive chef at Watermark.


Scrambled eggs with ramps, morels and asparagus

This egg dish, which can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner, blends a traditional method for cooking ramps with fresh spring favorites — morels and asparagus.

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup thinly sliced trimmed ramp bulbs and slender stems plus 1 cup
thinly sliced green tops (from about 4 large ramps)

4 medium asparagus spears, trimmed, cut diagonally into 1/2-inch
pieces (about 1/2 cup)

1 ounce fresh morel mushrooms, thinly sliced lengthwise (about 1/2 cup)

4 large eggs, beaten to blend

1. Melt butter in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add ramp
bulbs and stems to skillet; sauté 3 minutes. Add green tops, asparagus
and mushrooms; sauté until ramps are soft and asparagus is
crisp-tender, about 9 minutes.

2. Add eggs to skillet; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir until eggs
are very softly set, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and
pepper. Divide scrambled eggs between 2 plates and serve immediately.

Recipe from Bon Appetit, April 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a delightful article. I know there is a Poke Sallet festival in lower Kentucky, was wondering if there is a Ramp festival in east tennessee.