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The Big Ramp Dig
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  • The Big Ramp Dig

    Post #1 - April 8th, 2005, 12:47 am
    Post #1 - April 8th, 2005, 12:47 am Post #1 - April 8th, 2005, 12:47 am
    A typical article in Saveur magazine is a fairly personal tale recounting the author’s explorations and discoveries of some particular dish or ingredient, often in some remote or romantic or exotic corner of the world. I’m always jealous of these experiences–the 1940s port the host happens to have in his basement cellar, the casual, whipped-up-on-the-spot, impossibly decadent four-course lunch, the sort of nonchalance and ordinariness with which such extraordinary adventures are had.

    The family Deacon was lucky enough to have such an experience this past weekend at The Spence Farm.

    Spurred on by Terra’s post on the Events board, we were greeted early Sunday morning by the prettiest spring day to date, a welcome turn since we had a one-year-old and a three-year-old in tow. I knew relatively little about our mission or our destination–we were going into the forest to dig ramps, whatever that entailed.

    So we headed down I-55 to just outside the town of Fairbury, about a 2 hour drive. We were greeted at the farm by Kris and Marty Travis. Kris is the farmer, Marty helps, but his real stock-in-trade, we would learn, is as a woodworker, fashioning beautiful reproductions of Shaker furniture. There were only a couple others there at that point, so we got a chance to chat a bit with the farmer’s, to meet Terra, and let the kids run free for a while.

    We were soon joined by a varied collection of helpers–some Chicago food enthusiasts like ourselves, some others from downstate, some neighbors, and a number of Chicago-area chefs and cooks. After we had all gathered, we piled into a van to head down the road to the ramp-laden wood.

    Marty explained how to go about digging the ramps, and we set to work.

    Image

    Despite the help of our two young boys, work proved slow for us.

    Image

    Image

    Eventually, as Kate was trying to determine how much dirt Luke had ingested, the farmers’ son Will (the young fellow leaning against the tree in the top pic) came to help me and we quickly filled our box.

    I admit I felt a bit guilty about being down to “help” dig ramps, since we were probably out digging for only about 30-45 minutes. We (the 20 or 30 visitors) were certainly of service to the farm, since they have more of the profitable ramps growing on the land than they are able to pick each year, but I have no doubt that the Travis family could have easily doubled the total ramp yield by devoting the day to ramps rather than guests.

    (As it turns out, though, the farm is aiming to be as much an educational endeavor as a food producer.*)

    Somewhat to my surprise, the time spent digging ramps is about half the time required to clean them.

    Image

    Most people preferred the digging to the cleaning. And I can’t say I entirely disagree. But I liked the cleaning too. When digging, there’s a greater sense of accomplishment and a greater closeness to the land…you’re in the woods, you’re harvesting the earth’s bounty, you work up a sweat. The cleaning, though, has it’s own quiet rhythm that I actually very much enjoy, like pitting cherries or shelling beans. Sitting around on overturned 5-gallon buckets, soaking up the fresh, warm spring sunlight–grab a handful, rinse the dirt off, peel off the slimy, oniony skin, and repeat. The task of cleaning everything we picked was so unlikely, that the joy in the cleaning wasn’t about reaching a goal–it was just about the doing…bunch after bunch, ramp after ramp. I could have sat there and cleaned ramps for hours on this afternoon. But I wasn’t about to miss lunch.

    What a wonderful and delicious treat. There were a bunch of cooks from Chicago restaurants that concentrate on local and organic produce…Blackbird, Vie, 312 Chicago, and a few others. I’m not sure which precisely were responsible for cooking lunch, but boy oh boy, did they put out some satisfying food. Ramps, of course, sautéed with some fresh shiitakes from Terra’s neighboring farm (Henry’s, I believe, of farmer’s market fame). She also provided lots of fresh, creamy eggs–some scrambled, some incorporated into a Spanish tortilla-type potato dish–and a variety of homemade jams and jellies. Another local farmer brought milk, yogurt, and cheese from her goats. Chicago visitors brought Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, some Tomme de Savoie, some country pate (which it appeared one of the cooks had made), fresh bread. There was ham salad and guanciale and yellow cornbread and blue cornbread, and this was one fine and fitting meal.

    It was a meal where you could feel you contributed, even though you actually did very little. It’s a bit ridiculous, how little, in fact. Here in our city apartment, with our concrete backyard parking lot, we really do live along way from the land our food comes from. The simple joy of spending four or five hours on a real live farm, and less than half of that actually working, is a wonderful respite from city life. But how pathetic that that four or five hours is such a culture shock. That the contrast with “real life” is so stark. That the farm is so far removed from how we live that two hours of work there can actually seem like doing something in a way that 40 hours in an office can’t. That maybe Luke was eating the dirt not because he liked it, but because he doesn’t know dirt–not forest dirt, farm dirt, outside dirt–he just knows dirt mixed with wood chips in a forest of iron trees that sprout tire swings and monkey bars.

    Now, unlike my wife, I love the city. I love Chicago’s towering peaks and foreboding canyons. I love the lights and the bridges and the sooty buses and the mass of humanity you are forced to encounter when you go just about anywhere. And when we leave town, the Chicago skyline always brings me great joy upon our return, like how I imagine a great bejeweled city rises as an oasis in the middle of the desert. I always have a sense of returning to livelihood and vitality. But driving away from the farm, not so much. For the first time I can remember, I nearly dreaded the man-made monuments to civilization that I knew would, with their enormity and overwhelming power, push the farm–those few simple hours–further back in my memory.

    The Chicago skyline, if not urban reality, was forestalled somewhat on our return by a stop at Amanecer Tapatio in Joliet. I was really looking forward to this segment of the trip, as the place has received quite high praise on this board and on Chowhound. I wasn’t about to be put off by the fact we’d just had a rather full midday meal a few hours earlier.

    When we walked into the restaurant around five, there wasn’t a table to be had. Impressive to see the place so busy. We were seated and served by who I presume must be Monica, though I couldn’t recall her name at the time.

    The salsas were wonderful, both with quite a good dose of heat (too much, in fact, for the whole family but me). Monica claimed that the salsa verde was simply tomatillos and peppers, but it was so thick and creamy I find that difficult to believe. The roja had the nice earthy, chile-ness that good red salsas have.

    Image

    Taking a cue from previous reports, we both ordered an entrée off the daily specials board. For Kate, it was chilaquiles, for me costillas en chile morita, or something similar, which is pork ribs stewed in a sauce based on chiles morita.

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    It’s hard for me to judge the chilaquiles because the tortillas were so fresh and so good on their own that I wasn’t so interested in the sauced preparation. Kate was happy with them, though. I liked my dish quite a bit as well. The beans (I believe RST has written somewhere about their beans being quite unique–found something–mayo cobas, I guess) were not to my taste; the rice was excellent. Overall, and based on this limited exposure on a relatively full stomach, I like this restaurant, though I didn’t get a good sense of what, if anything, separates it from the better restaurants in Chicago. However, I do plan to make it a stop when I pass through Joliet.

    Finally, the ramps. I felt a little guilty driving home with 5 pounds of ramps, but hey, I picked ‘em and I cleaned ‘em, left lots at the farm, and they’ve got more than they know what to do with anyway. The funny thing about all this is that I’m not even sure if I’d ever had a ramp before. This is a really good vegetable. Most surprising to me is the leafy part–it’s flavor reminds me of arugula, but with a garlic bite instead of a pepper bite. It’s a tremendous salad green. I’ve pretty much been using it in everything…they last, but 5 pounds is a lot. We’re probably about ¾ through, and we’ve used them in salsa verde; in tacos with grilled skirt steak; grilled ramps with olive oil, salt, and pepper; grilled pizzas with ramps, mushrooms, and blue cheese; ramp and potato soup; ramps and eggs…and I’m not sure what’s to come. Someone on Sunday advised wrapping fish in the leaves and grilling it. Mmmmm….rampalicious.

    Cheers,

    Aaron

    *More information about the Spence Farm can be found at http://www.thelandconnection.org. Also, there is an article in The Reader this week about the dig on Sunday, though I’m not sure if it’s available online. Also, see the Events board for more on next Sunday’s event.
  • Post #2 - April 8th, 2005, 5:39 am
    Post #2 - April 8th, 2005, 5:39 am Post #2 - April 8th, 2005, 5:39 am
    Aaron Deacon wrote:A typical article in Saveur magazine is a fairly personal tale recounting the author’s explorations and discoveries of some particular dish or ingredient, often in some remote or romantic or exotic corner of the world. .


    And your description of the Great Ramp Dig of 2005 is better written than at least 90% of the articles in Saveur-- and that's not meant to be critical in the least of the excellent writing there.
  • Post #3 - April 8th, 2005, 6:25 am
    Post #3 - April 8th, 2005, 6:25 am Post #3 - April 8th, 2005, 6:25 am
    Aaron Deacon wrote:A typical article in Saveur magazine is a fairly personal tale recounting the author’s explorations and discoveries of some particular dish or ingredient, often in some remote or romantic or exotic corner of the world. I’m always jealous of these experiences–the 1940s port the host happens to have in his basement cellar, the casual, whipped-up-on-the-spot, impossibly decadent four-course lunch, the sort of nonchalance and ordinariness with which such extraordinary adventures are had.



    Yea, well know I am jealous of you! The whole enterprise sounds fantastic, from the appreciation of wild foods, to sustainable agriculture to getting the young un's out in the dirt. You captured it all VERY well.

    (And of course the Saveur people never get to eat at Amanaceer Tapatio on the way home).

    I think the Land Connection, Tara and others are doing some great things. I hope this report will spark more interest.

    Rob

    PS
    I agree with what Ann sez.
    Think Yiddish, Dress British - Advice of Evil Ronnie to me.
  • Post #4 - April 8th, 2005, 7:35 am
    Post #4 - April 8th, 2005, 7:35 am Post #4 - April 8th, 2005, 7:35 am
    The beans (I believe RST has written somewhere about their beans being quite unique–found something–mayo cobas, I guess) were not to my taste; the rice was excellent.


    I can't recall exactly what RST said about the beans but what strikes me as interesting is that the folks at Amancer Tapatio (AT) choose to use this less common (in the States) bean rather than the ubiquitous pintos -- as with virtually every aspect of their cooking, AT strives to be faithful to tradition. The mayo cobas are the basic bean of northwestern Mexico and I guess that Jalisco (whence the folks at AT come), as a peripheral participant in that cultural area, also favours mayo cobas, at least in parts of the state.

    Amata and I have had the pleasure of eating a few times at AT and I have enjoyed everything I've had there except the beans. But it's not the fault of the mayo cobas, which I buy regularly in dried form (occasionally in barrio groceries, e.g., Copacabana on Cermak east of California, one sees cans of mayo cobas from La Preferida) and consider one of my two favourite sorts of beans. The way they prepare them at AT just doesn't do it for me and, apparently, it doesn't do it for a number of other people: too watery, too lardy, not enough salt, to my taste not sufficiently 'beany'. As you say, the rice is always nicely moist and tasty and an excellent match for saucy dishes such as the costillas en chile morita.

    The ramp expedition seems to have been a great success in all ways. Thanks for the report and pictures.

    Antonius
    Alle Nerven exzitiert von dem gewürzten Wein -- Anwandlung von Todesahndungen -- Doppeltgänger --
    - aus dem Tagebuch E.T.A. Hoffmanns, 6. Januar 1804.
    ________
    Na sir is na seachain an cath.
  • Post #5 - April 8th, 2005, 7:42 am
    Post #5 - April 8th, 2005, 7:42 am Post #5 - April 8th, 2005, 7:42 am
    Antonius wrote:

    Amata and I have had the pleasure of eating a few times at AT and I have enjoyed everything I've had there except the beans. But it's not the fault of the mayo cobas, which I buy regularly in dried form (occasionally in barrio groceries, e.g., Copacabana on Cermak east of California, one sees cans of mayo cobas from La Preferida) and consider one of my two favourite sorts of beans. The way they prepare them at AT just doesn't do it for me and, apparently, it doesn't do it for a number of other people: too watery, too lardy, not enough salt, to my taste not sufficiently 'beany'. As you say, the rice is always nicely moist and tasty and an excellent match for saucy dishes such as the costillas en chile morita.


    Antonius


    I'm no expert on AT, having only been there once, but in that one experience, I agree with Antonius. The beans were the only thing I did not like that much.

    I think, and this is also compared to Casa de Samuel, the best "whole" beans I have had in a Mexican place is at La Quebrada. A meal of their bacony charro beans and fresh made tortillas is one of the top eating experiences in Chicago.

    Rob

    (sorry for the digression)
    Think Yiddish, Dress British - Advice of Evil Ronnie to me.
  • Post #6 - April 8th, 2005, 10:05 am
    Post #6 - April 8th, 2005, 10:05 am Post #6 - April 8th, 2005, 10:05 am
    Aaron Deacon wrote:maybe Luke was eating the dirt not because he liked it, but because he doesn’t know dirt–not forest dirt, farm dirt, outside dirt–he just knows dirt mixed with wood chips in a forest of iron trees that sprout tire swings and monkey bars.


    This line gave me a good laugh, and I think it shows Luke has the right attitude: if you're not sure what it is, try to eat it!

    I'm honestly not sure I've ever had ramps either, but your excellent post has inspired me to give them a try.

    Hammond
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #7 - April 9th, 2005, 7:25 am
    Post #7 - April 9th, 2005, 7:25 am Post #7 - April 9th, 2005, 7:25 am
    Ann Fisher wrote:And your description of the Great Ramp Dig of 2005 is better written than at least 90% of the articles in Saveur-- and that's not meant to be critical in the least of the excellent writing there.

    Aaron,

    Really enjoyable to read, and you now have me wondering how fish wrapped in ramp leaves would taste. Pretty good, I imagine.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #8 - May 1st, 2005, 3:43 pm
    Post #8 - May 1st, 2005, 3:43 pm Post #8 - May 1st, 2005, 3:43 pm
    I had an excellent rabbit dish at Cafe Matou last night, and one which I was very excited to try after learning that it included ramps. For this dish, a roasted leg joint and a rabbit sausage were placed on a creamy potato purée and accompanied by a few braised ramps and haricot verts. The whole assembly was set off by a lovely, velvet-smooth red wine reduction.

    Last night's ocassion--but really this dish in particular--renewed my enthusiasm for the place, and I intend to return very soon. Our ability to secure a last-minute reservation at Cafe Matou was a joy in itself, so I will remember these things the next time that I am tempted to drop in at La Sardine, Kiki's, Tournesol, etc. And, I should hardly mind the fact that Cafe Matou is less than five minutes from my home.

    At any rate, I mean to say that while I passed on some of the ramps which were harvested at the Southern Illinois dig, I still managed to get a small share of this season's bounty. And, as an added bonus, I was able to perversely delight in my dining companion's reaction to the story of the "stinking onion," and the "intimate" history that it shares with our fair town.

    Regards,
    Erik M.
  • Post #9 - May 3rd, 2007, 12:39 pm
    Post #9 - May 3rd, 2007, 12:39 pm Post #9 - May 3rd, 2007, 12:39 pm
    The Whole Foods on Ashland/School had ramps yesterday so I picked up a small bunch for $4.99. I've never cooked with ramps before. Any suggestions? I was thinking of sauteing them in a little butter and enjoying as simply as possible to get the full effect.
  • Post #10 - May 4th, 2007, 1:22 pm
    Post #10 - May 4th, 2007, 1:22 pm Post #10 - May 4th, 2007, 1:22 pm
    viaChgo wrote:The Whole Foods on Ashland/School had ramps yesterday so I picked up a small bunch for $4.99. I've never cooked with ramps before. Any suggestions? I was thinking of sauteing them in a little butter and enjoying as simply as possible to get the full effect.


    Whenever I receive a big score from my father's family's woodland plot in northwestern IL, I start as you suggest with simple sautées and the like. But, before long, I gravitate to more involved preps like gratins, pickles, etc., not only as a means of extending the yield, as it were, but also my interest. ;)

    Any basic leek gratin recipe in which you merely shorten the oven time should produce a good result.

    And, when it comes to pickling recipes, it's hard to beat the following adaptation of Tom Colicchio's NYC Greenmarket giveaway:

    http://www.gothamist.com/2006/04/26/whats_fresh_ram.php

    In any event, let us know what you do.

    I haven't prepared any myself this year, but I'm headed back to Vie tomorrow night with the remote hope that they are still making an appearance in some form.

    E.M.
    Last edited by Erik M. on May 4th, 2007, 3:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #11 - May 4th, 2007, 2:13 pm
    Post #11 - May 4th, 2007, 2:13 pm Post #11 - May 4th, 2007, 2:13 pm
    I don't typically quote myself, but this is a bit buried in the thread's first post:

    It’s a tremendous salad green. I’ve pretty much been using it in everything…they last, but 5 pounds is a lot. We’re probably about ¾ through, and we’ve used them in salsa verde; in tacos with grilled skirt steak; grilled ramps with olive oil, salt, and pepper; grilled pizzas with ramps, mushrooms, and blue cheese; ramp and potato soup; ramps and eggs…and I’m not sure what’s to come. Someone on Sunday advised wrapping fish in the leaves and grilling it. Mmmmm….rampalicious.
  • Post #12 - May 7th, 2007, 10:19 am
    Post #12 - May 7th, 2007, 10:19 am Post #12 - May 7th, 2007, 10:19 am
    Erik M. wrote:I haven't prepared any myself this year, but I'm headed back to Vie tomorrow night with the remote hope that they are still making an appearance in some form.


    Followup:

    Ramps made two appearances on Saturday evening's menu...

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    Image

    ...and, as much as they appealed to me, my girlfriend wasn't interested in sampling the ragout of Burgundy snails with wood-grilled ramps, so I instead satisfied my ramp jones by ordering the wood-grilled lamb loin chop and braised neck ravioli with ramps.

    The remainder of our selections were are follows:

    crispy prairie fruits farm fresh chevre gnocchi with morels, etc. (for her)

    buttermilk soaked and pan-fried quail with quail egg, pea shoots, spring peas, etc. (for me)

    salad of wood-grilled dandelions with mixed greens, croutons, etc. (shared)

    wood-grilled all natural "kobe" steak with naan, aioli, asparagus, etc. (for her)

    biscuit-topped rhubarb compote with buttermilk ice cream (shared)

    In addition to the ramps, we made a point of ordering to include morels, fresh spring asparagus, and rhubarb. Little did we know that my mother would be gifting us with the same bounty from her own yard the very next day...

    Image

    Image

    ;)

    At any rate, Saturday marked my fourth visit to Vie in the past two years, and I enjoyed it as much as ever.

    E.M.
  • Post #13 - May 7th, 2007, 10:47 am
    Post #13 - May 7th, 2007, 10:47 am Post #13 - May 7th, 2007, 10:47 am
    Thanks for all of the suggestions! For my first foray into ramp cookery, I just kept it simple...a slow saute with butter, s&p, & a little extra virgin olive oil at the end. Delicious. We ate it with grilled pork chops. I'm planning to stop at Whole Foods this week and hopefully, they'll still have more ramps. I'd like to try a couple of the suggested preparations.
  • Post #14 - May 7th, 2007, 12:18 pm
    Post #14 - May 7th, 2007, 12:18 pm Post #14 - May 7th, 2007, 12:18 pm
    Just to add, the Whole Foods in River Forest has (as of yesterday) ramps from Harmony Valley in Wisconsin. They were teriffic grilled.
    Think Yiddish, Dress British - Advice of Evil Ronnie to me.
  • Post #15 - May 8th, 2007, 12:55 pm
    Post #15 - May 8th, 2007, 12:55 pm Post #15 - May 8th, 2007, 12:55 pm
    Erik M. wrote:
    The remainder of our selections were are follows:

    crispy prairie fruits farm fresh chevre gnocchi with morels, etc. (for her)

    buttermilk soaked and pan-fried quail with quail egg, pea shoots, spring peas, etc. (for me)

    salad of wood-grilled dandelions with mixed greens, croutons, etc. (shared)

    wood-grilled all natural "kobe" steak with naan, aioli, asparagus, etc. (for her)

    biscuit-topped rhubarb compote with buttermilk ice cream (shared)


    As it turned out, last night we had big (HUGE*) news to celebrate and we happened (just) to be near Vie. What better place to enjoy our simcha!

    Of the dishes cited above, we had the steak, the rhubarb cobbler (not compote) and dandelion salad. We also had the seared foie gras with rhubarb, the turbot en papillote, molten chocolate cake and gooey peanut butter cake.

    I've been more than 4 times within the year, but I too found Vie better than ever.

    Monday's happen to be 1/2 price wine night at Vie. To celebrate we had a 1/2 bottle of Billecart-Salmon, one of my favorites (about my favorite) NV champagnes; then we had a bottle of Régis Minet, Vieilles Vignes, Pouilly Fumé that I found a little too subtle. I've become too hooked on New Zealand SBs.

    *Sophia found out she no longer needs her back-brace.
    Think Yiddish, Dress British - Advice of Evil Ronnie to me.
  • Post #16 - May 8th, 2007, 2:11 pm
    Post #16 - May 8th, 2007, 2:11 pm Post #16 - May 8th, 2007, 2:11 pm
    Vital Information wrote:Monday's happen to be 1/2 price wine night at Vie. To celebrate we had a 1/2 bottle of Billecart-Salmon, one of my favorites (about my favorite) NV champagnes; then we had a bottle of Régis Minet, Vieilles Vignes, Pouilly Fumé that I found a little too subtle. I've become too hooked on New Zealand SBs.


    You are far more wine-literate than me, I am sure, but I have always fared quite well with Vie's list(s).*

    On Saturday, we thoroughly enjoyed both the Henriot, Souverain, NV Brut, Champagne and the Domain Gachot-Monot, Cotes de Nuits-Villages, 04, Burgundy.

    E.M.

    * That likely makes them more "rube-friendly" than those of most similarly-oriented/priced establishments in the Chicagoland area. ;)

    P.S. I offer my congratulations to Sheila.
  • Post #17 - May 19th, 2007, 10:29 am
    Post #17 - May 19th, 2007, 10:29 am Post #17 - May 19th, 2007, 10:29 am
    whole foods on north ave. has 2 bunches of ramps for $5.00 today. this seems like a good price. now, i have to decide what to do with them.....
  • Post #18 - May 21st, 2007, 8:09 pm
    Post #18 - May 21st, 2007, 8:09 pm Post #18 - May 21st, 2007, 8:09 pm
    Gnudi with Ramps and Brown-Butter Sauce (adapted from Bon Appetit) @ Homesick Texan

    E.M.
  • Post #19 - May 22nd, 2007, 7:31 am
    Post #19 - May 22nd, 2007, 7:31 am Post #19 - May 22nd, 2007, 7:31 am
    Interestinlgy, I talked with the Harmony Vally people Saturday at the Dane County Farmers Market, and they mentioned how they were long gone of ramps. Yet, yesterday, at Whole Foods, River Forest, they still remain!
    Think Yiddish, Dress British - Advice of Evil Ronnie to me.

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