Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Sprintime pasta and sauvignon blanc: ramping up the menu

Ramps!  Like snails, single malt scotch or sweet breads, you either love ‘em or hate ‘em.

Maybe it’s because of my familial ties to the ramp capitol of the world – Richwood, West Virginia - but I really do love those little odiferous lilies that dot the mountains of our wild and wonderful state this time of year.

The stories about Richwood and ramps are many, outrageous and sometimes true. The late Jim Comstock, publisher of the now defunct West Virginia Hillbilly, chronicled many of them in his newspaper. He is also responsible for literally creating a national stink when he added ramps to the printers ink for one edition of the newspaper. The US Postal service was not amused, but it sure did put his town and ramps on the map.

My paternal grandparents hailed from that little mountain village fast by the shores of the Cherry River, and I spent many happy summers there, escaping the heat and humidity of Clarksburg in the days before air-conditioning. I don’t remember ever having been exposed to the little lilies back then, but I do remember my first experience with them.

I was in the US Army at the time and home on leave, enjoying a few days with my family before heading off to Southeast Asia to defeat communism. One evening, my next door neighbor brought over a six pack (or so) of beer and a mess of ramps.  He suggested the best way to enjoy the little veggies was to sprinkle them with salt and eat them raw – which we did until the wee hours of the morning

Well, I awoke that spring morning to a home in which every window and door had been opened. My mother was outside with an industrial size container of Lysol and was spraying the stuff into the house from each window. The moral of the story:  For the protection of mankind, don’t ever drink beer and eat raw ramps unless you are encased in a hazmat suit.

This time of year, just about every town in our state features a ramp feed at which people are introduced (many for the first time) to over-ripe and under-cooked ramps. After experiencing the culinary massacre of ramps by those who fry them in lard or bacon grease and add them to potatoes or (worse) pinto beans, people leave the events belching and flatulent, vowing never to get within a country mile of a ramp.   

However, I implore you:  don’t give up on ramps just yet.  Today, I want to offer a recipe for your consideration that uses the pungent flavor of  ramps as just a nuance to a pasta dish which is enhanced by the accompaniment of full-flavored  sauvignon blanc.

Shopping list:

-          a small bunch of ramps

-          asparagus  

-          thick sliced bacon

-          extra virgin olive oil

-          one-pound of capellini

-          red pepper flakes

-          grated pecorino-romano cheese

-          salt and pepper to taste

       1. Dice four pieces of bacon and sauté it in a frying pan over low heat until it is crisp. Then remove the bacon and allow it to drain on paper towels.

       2. Drain off all but about two tablespoons of bacon fat and add two ounces of extra virgin olive oil to the pan.

    3. Clean and dice a small bunch of ramps (eight or ten). Reserve the green parts for later and sauté the white parts along with one-quarter pound of cleaned and diced asparagus tops in the bacon fat and olive oil until the veggies are tender.

    4. Cook the pasta (al dente) in a large pot of boiling water to which you have added a teaspoon of salt.

    5. When the pasta is done, add a quarter cup of the cooking liquid along with the pasta to the frying pan with the ramps and asparagus.

    6. To the pan, add the bacon, the pecorino romano and the red pepper flakes and integrate the mixture over low heat.

    7. Now add the reserved (and chopped) green ramp tops to the mixture and serve.

This ramp and asparagus pasta dish would be well served by a crisp, yet round,   sauvignon blanc. The grassy, herbal and melon flavor components of sauvignon blanc, especially ones from New Zealand, go exceptionally well with vegetables like asparagus that has been flavored with ramps (or even garlic).  

2007 Villa Maria  ($17); 2008 Nobilo Icon   ($22); 2008 Whitehaven   ($17); 2007 Geyser Peak ($13); and 2008 Kim Crawford ($20).

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