There’s nothing so West Virginian as ramps and beans. Especially with cornbread. And especially when all the ingredients come from your own land, or just down the road.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are the national food of West Virginia. The proper term for a serving of ramps is a “mess.” (As in this sentence, from my neighbor the other day: “I don’t dig too many ramps. I’ll have a few messes, but then I get tired of digging ’em.”)
People say ramps will make you stink, but that’s not necessarily so. Cooked ramps won’t give you any more odor than cooked garlic will. (The scent of a big mess of raw ramps, on the other hand, will come out on your skin the next day.)
Ramps have always been a backwoods thing, and fancy town people tend to be scared of them. I know someone who runs a nice restaurant not too far from here, and she tells me that when the place first opened, she naÃ¯vely put ramp quiche on the menu. She didn’t sell a single serving. (Customers recoiled in horror: “But I’ll stink!”) Now she’s wised up. She calls them “wild leeks” and they’re, ahem, wildly popular.
Now, non-Appalachian fancy people are all about ramps these days. They’re trendy in New York, where I’m told they go for $30 a pound. This is a worrying development, because ramps are not easily farmed, and they’re very vulnerable to depletion in their wild habitat. If you do harvest ramps, only pick where they’re very abundant, and only take one or two from each patch. If they aren’t super-abundant where you are, consider picking only leaves, or leaving the bottom quarter-inch of bulb in the ground to regenerate.
We’re lucky to have a big bag of ramps in the fridge right now, so we’ve been putting them in everything. (Eggs, soups, greens pizza, pesto â€” everything but ice cream. My sister pickled some and served them in Bloody Marys at Easter.) But ramps and beans are still my favorite. With cornbread. Southern, crispy-crumbly all-stoneground-corn cornbread.Â
Make your own:
Soak and cook your beans. (I used tiger eye beans from last year’s garden, but ramps are good with any brown or white beans.) Salt them well. Set aside.
Clean ramps well. Chop, and saute in good local lard or bacon drippings. (Schmalz is good, too, if pigs aren’t your thing.) When the ramps are cooked to your liking, add the beans. Simmer a bit.
For the cornbread, heat your oven to 400F or so, and put a nice number 12 cast iron skillet in there to get hot (yeah, you can use any baking dish, but a good hot skillet makes it crispy like it should be). Make sure you have fresh, coarse stoneground cornmeal. (We’re lucky to be able to get old-time multicolored “bloody butcher” corn from a local miller.) Mix about 2 cups of cornmeal with a teaspoon of salt and a little less than a teaspoon soda. Add about a cup and a half of buttermilk or sour milk (yogurt works too), an egg, and a couple of tablespoons of melted fat (lard, bacon drippings, schmalz or butter). Mix it all up and bake it in the hot skillet for, oh, a half hour or so, or until it’s nice and brown. This is a really flexible recipe. You can mess with the ingredients a lot without much trouble. (The other night we were out of eggs, and the cornbread came out perfectly tasty without them.)
(We had some of last year’s hard cider with ours. A perfect meal!)