Tramping for ramps enriches a friendship

Ramps have gained popularity, popping up as a hot ticket item in farmers markets for just a few weeks from mid-April through early May. Courtesy of Brooke Slezak
Ramps have gained popularity, popping up as a hot ticket item in farmers markets for just a few weeks from mid-April through early May. Courtesy of Brooke Slezak

Credit: Brooke Slezak

Credit: Brooke Slezak

There’s more to Allan Benton than country hams and bacon

He is revered by chefs and beloved by Southern food enthusiasts for Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. But, after going far into the East Tennessee and North Carolina mountains together every spring on our annual ramp expedition, I know there’s more to Allan Benton than his deeply smoked bacon and hams.

We piled into Benton’s worn pickup at his home in Madisonville, Tennessee, with a few crumpled plastic grocery bags in our pockets, and a couple of pickaxes and an oversized cast-iron pan tossed in the back. We were giddy, like two young kids, as we wound through sweeping North Carolina vistas, eager to begin our ramp adventure and set up camp to cook and enjoy the new crop of the short-season wild onions.

ExploreIn season: Ramps
Allan Benton (left), of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, and cookbook author Chadwick Boyd are seen foraging on the ridge of the Nantahala National Forest. Chadwick Boyd for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Allan Benton (left), of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, and cookbook author Chadwick Boyd are seen foraging on the ridge of the Nantahala National Forest. Chadwick Boyd for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chadwick Boyd

Credit: Chadwick Boyd

Ramps have gained in popularity in recent years, popping up as a hot-ticket item in farmers markets for just a few weeks from mid-April through early May. However, Benton has been ramp tramping for more than four decades, taught by a neighbor whose family hunted and cooked ramps for generations.

He has been careful to pass on the native wisdom with anyone he takes to hunt ramps: “If you find a dozen in one spot, only harvest four or five. That way, we are assured they will be here each year.”

These ramps have been rinsed in the cold, fresh waters of the Tennessee North River. Chadwick Boyd for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
These ramps have been rinsed in the cold, fresh waters of the Tennessee North River. Chadwick Boyd for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chadwick Boyd

Credit: Chadwick Boyd

Benton likes to say that, after a ramp tramp, you are so hungry, you will eat a can of pork and beans. All kidding aside, though, when ramp hunting with Benton, no cans are involved.

We fired up our cast-iron in a campsite near a cold-water creek, and fried up our just plucked ramps with bacon, country ham and freshly washed russet potatoes.

These russet potatoes have been crisped in an oversized cast-iron skillet with Benton’s signature smoky bacon and freshly harvested ramps. Chadwick Boyd for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
These russet potatoes have been crisped in an oversized cast-iron skillet with Benton’s signature smoky bacon and freshly harvested ramps. Chadwick Boyd for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Chadwick Boyd

Credit: Chadwick Boyd

There is a ritual to our cooking. Strips of Benton’s bacon are laid, lattice-like, in the hot skillet to cook evenly and render out the smoke-flavored fat. Peeled and hand-cut potatoes are added. To finish, piles of roughly chopped ramp leaves and stems are scattered on top, to wilt and perfume the potatoes with their pungent, bright flavor.

“Ramps add another dimension to any dish, especially a vegetable dish,” Benton said.

With our plates full, and wedges of cornbread piled on top, we settled into folding chairs to enjoy our feast.

After our annual day of foraging, cooking and conversation, our souls always are nourished. I am amazed how this friendship has been enriched by one of nature’s most simple foods.

Where to purchase ramps: Look for ramps at the Peachtree Road, Marietta Square and Buford Highway farmers markets, Piedmont Park Conservancy’s Green Market, Candler Park Market, Grant Park Market and Coosemans Atlanta at the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park. Supplies may vary week to week.

ExploreYour complete guide to 2021 metro Atlanta farmers markets
For this salad, potatoes are fried quickly in a skillet with roughly chopped ramps, then dressed in an easy buttermilk lemon dressing. Courtesy of Brooke Slezak
For this salad, potatoes are fried quickly in a skillet with roughly chopped ramps, then dressed in an easy buttermilk lemon dressing. Courtesy of Brooke Slezak

Credit: Brooke Slezak

Credit: Brooke Slezak

Ramp Bacon Potato Salad

This potato salad takes a simple approach to making the popular side dish. The potatoes are fried quickly in a skillet with roughly chopped ramps, then dressed in an easy buttermilk lemon dressing.

Ramp Bacon Potato Salad
  • 4 strips thick-cut bacon, such as Benton’s
  • 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces ramps (about 24 ramps), cleaned, trimmed and roughly chopped (about 2 cups), divided
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • ¾ teaspoon lemon zest
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the strips of bacon and cook until the fat is rendered and the bacon is fairly crisp, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to let the grease drain.
  • Add the potatoes to the skillet. Season with the salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown all sides. Stir in half of the ramps (about 1 cup) and continue cooking 5-7 minutes more, until the potatoes are slightly crispy and the ramps are soft. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a large mixing bowl. Let cool for 20-30 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat.
  • In a jar with a lid, add the mayonnaise, buttermilk, vinegar and lemon zest. Shake well.
  • Pour the dressing over the potatoes. Crumble the bacon, set aside ¼ cup and add the rest to the bowl with the potatoes. Set aside ½ cup of the remaining ramps and add the rest to the bowl. Fold the ingredients together. Place on a platter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the reserved ¼ cup bacon and ½ cup ramps. Serve at room temperature. Serves six to eight.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving, based on eight: 223 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 6 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 11 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 527 milligrams sodium.

Easy Ramp Butter

Ramp butter is one of the simplest ways to cook with and enjoy ramps. It takes about 10 minutes to prepare, and adds bright, sharp flavor to main and side dishes, from fish and steak to rice and sauteed vegetables.

Easy Ramp Butter
  • 2-3 ounces ramps (5-6 ramps), washed and trimmed
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) salted butter at room temperature
  • ¾ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 pinches sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • Bring a wide pot of water to a rolling boil.
  • Fill a wide bowl with ice and top off with water. Place a clean cloth folded in half next to the bowl.
  • Place the ramps in the boiling water and blanch for 30-45 seconds, until bright green and tender. Using tongs, transfer immediately to the ice bath; let rest 1 minute. Remove from the bath and place on the dry cloth. Pat the ramps dry. Place on a cutting board and chop very finely.
  • In a small bowl, mix together the ramps, butter, lemon zest, salt and pepper.
  • Dollop the ramp butter onto a sheet of parchment paper about 12-14 inches long. Roll the parchment toward you to form the butter into a log. Twist the ends of the parchment to seal. Place in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours, or until firm. Use as desired. Or, place in a resealable bag and store in the freezer up to 3 months. Makes about ½ cup.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per tablespoon: 104 calories (percent of calories from fat, 97), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 11 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 30 milligrams cholesterol, 122 milligrams sodium.

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