Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in a series tracking Jeremiah Langhorne, former chef de cuisine at the modernist, farm-to-table McCrady's in Charleston, S.C., as he opens the Dabney, his debut restaurant in Washington. You can read earlier installments here, here and here.
Ramps don't care much for the neat rows of modern agriculture. This wild relative of the leek, as much a symbol of spring as cherry blossoms and sinkholes, prefers forest canopies and soils rich with decomposed leaves and other organic matter. Ramps also take their sweet time to reach maturity. You could plant ramp seeds this summer and, even under perfect conditions, still wait five years, or more, before harvesting your first crop.
The scarcity of ramps, combined with the culinary world's fascination with the pungent little plant, has created a profitable marketplace for them: Foragers have been known to decimate a field of wild ramps and sell the plants at prices fetching $8 to 12 a pound. (D'Artagnan, the gourmet purveyor, sells them in season for around $15 or $16 a pound). Enterprising chefs, of course, will forage for ramps themselves, assuming they can even find them, and if they do locate a promising patch, you can bet a Viking range they won't tell a soul about it.
Jeremiah Langhorne has discovered not an isolated patch a wild ramps, but practically a forest floor of them, their slender green leaves stretching as far as the eye can see. He'd prefer that I not name this ramp paradise in western Pennsylvania, lest it become overrun with illegal foragers in future seasons. But suffice to say, Langhorne has the blessing of the retired couple who owns the acreage to dig up as many as he needs, careful to leave the vast majority untouched so the field will yield more ramps for years to come.
It might seem odd for a chef to forage for ramps when he doesn't yet have a restaurant to call home. The Dabney, Langhorne's D.C. debut in Blagden Alley, is still months away from opening, but the chef needs ingredients for a variety of purposes: for pop-up dinners, for kitchen experiments and for long-term pantry projects.
For this trip north, Langhorne has rented a mammoth SUV and invited his wife, Jenny Mooney, his business partner, Alex Zink, and two chefs, Isaiah Billington and Sarah Conezio, who work for Erik Bruner-Yang at Honeycomb grocery in Union Market. The three-hour trip provides a rare chance to eavesdrop on chef banter, a juicy combination of gossip, trash talk and recipe dissection. (A snippet: "I keep reading about how much, especially in California, how much water it takes to make beer and wine," says Conezio. "Or an almond," counters Langhorne.)
Once the crew reaches the Pennsylvania farm, however, its attention turns singular: toward the ground, where ramps sprout next to rocks, in open fields and under the protective cover of the shagbark hickory and scaly hemlock trees common to the region. The fields smell as if someone had been slicing spring onions by the truckload. This is Langhorne's second visit to the site, where the owners refuse compensation for the foraged ingredients, save perhaps for an occasional chef-prepared dinner.
"I got to say," Langhorne says, "I've done a lot of foraging, and it's so rare to find places that are as abundant as this place has been. There's a lot of stuff. But also, it's abundant in different ways. I'm used to a beach climate [in South Carolina], so this is all new stuff to me, so it's like 10 times more exciting."
Most of the team hunts for ramps, but Conezio is on the prowl for sweet cicely or wild anise, whose gnarly roots will become the base for vinegar. Conezio has been experimenting with vegetable-based vinegars, which she aims to create without adding sugar to first produce the necessary alcohol that's then converted to acetic acid or vinegar.
"The vegetable stuff is funny because you're dealing with other forces," she says. "For example, the beet. I have no idea why it works [for vinegar] because it's very alkaline." Conezio just juiced the beets, she says, and there was enough natural sugar to produce alcohol. She's not sure yet if sweet cicely will be as amenable, but should she prove successful, her anise vinegar will be available at Maketto, like the others, where you can sip them with soda.
Before she can produce a drop, however, Langhorne issues a warning. Or maybe he's just showing off his knowledge of native plants — and which are safe for human consumption and which are not.
Sweet cicely "looks very similar to hemlock, which will kill you," Langhorne says way too casually. "You need to be very careful, but we're not near where hemlock grows. The thing is, before you use any of this, you really need to make sure that you rub all of it and make sure it's all anise, because the anise root will smell immediately like anise, and you'll know you're fine. The hemlock will smell like horse or like human urine."
There are fewer dangers when foraging ramps, aside from brushing up against stinging nettles, which can irritate the skin. There are two primary stresses to foraging. The first is physical, the same complaint of every migrant worker from Florida to California: Bending over to uproot plants for hours under a warm sun can exhaust all energy reserves. The second is emotional: To reach mature ramps, you often have to step on immature ones.
Or as Billington notes: "Every step costs like $8."
The process of selecting and unearthing the ramps can be laborious. Langhorne wants only mature ones, and once he finds a cluster of elder ramps, he'll take a small shovel and dig well below the surface to avoid slicing the subterranean bulbs in half. He'll then shake the ramps vigorously and beat them against the nearest hard surface to loosen the dirt. All around us, you hear the dull thump-thump of ramp bulbs being whacked against fallen trees.
"Generally, I like to look for ones that don't look like they've just begun their life," Langhorne says. "Maybe I have a weird way of treating vegetables as a living thing . . . It'd be sad to pull something before it's really lived its life."
On a previous outing to the farm, Langhorne used ramps to prepare soup for a gala dinner. "Perhaps one of the most expensive soups you could possibly ever have," the chef says. He's not bragging, just passing along facts. His soup was made with 40 pounds of ramp bulbs sauteed in butter and then cooked with milk and a bay leaf until soft. The bulbs were moved to a blender and pureed with sauteed ramp leaves, all without an ounce of chicken stock. He seasoned the soup and then added a dash or two of hot sauce.
"It's as rampy as ramps can be," Langhorne says. "When it's a one-vegetable soup, why would you throw anything else in it? Why put chicken stock in it? I don't want it to taste like ramps and chicken."
Langhorne's most recent haul scored him about 160 pounds of ramps, which he will pickle and have available for the Dabney's first day of service this fall. He'll even use the pickling brine — a mixture of cider and champagne vinegars, bay leaf, chili flake, garlic, peppercorns, cloves and other flavoring agents — in various ways in his kitchen.
"I use it like you would use lemon juice . . . I use it to season things," Langhorne says. "It has an incredible depth of flavor."
Apparently all ramps must come with a side of corn, too. At least when the Langhorne crew forages for them. The puns begin before the team hits the fields.
"Get your ramp face on," encourages Zink while still seated in the SUV.
"I'm ramping up," Langhorne counters, the pun-fest not even close to ramping speed.
Near the end of lunch in a beautifully restored farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, Billington drops a line seemingly to no one in particular but speaking for everyone who's stuffed with ramp puns and sauteed ramps with country ham jus:
"You're c-ramping my style," he says.