It's scrawny. It's dirty. It's bulbous. Its very name is rather pedestrian.
If you had to think of the most unlikely adjective to describe a ramp, "sexy" would probably be it.
And yet that's just the word that comes to chef Marc Forgione as he tries to describe what a ramp _ yes, just a little old wild leek _ means to him.
"There's something to me that's very sexy about a thing we can only get in the woods, and only at certain times," says Forgione, whose hip Manhattan eatery bears his name.
"It's like taking a breath of fresh air," he adds, continuing his ode to the vegetable, around which he recently fashioned a seven-course menu with dishes like ramp-crusted lamb loin and ramp ice cream with foie gras shavings. "And look at what it represents. Change. The winter's over. Spring is here. Let's go back to what's fresh and green."
Though Forgione may be among the most ardent of the ramp's proponents _ particularly in the wildly inventive ways he cooks it _ this chef/restaurateur, who has twice won a Michelin star for his Tribeca eatery and once won "The Next Iron Chef," is far from alone.
For more than a decade now, but seemingly more each year, foodies and chefs have gone crazy over the veggie, whose short season _ roughly four to five weeks in the spring _ makes it that much more desirable, like an enigmatic lover who pops in from overseas and then quickly disappears.
Ramp lovers know it can be hard to find their prized leeks, so they get to the farmers market early and buy as many as they can. They know ramps can be sweet and aromatic at the early stage, and thin _ "like a bar straw," says Forgione _ but more pungent and garlicky later in the season. They adapt their recipes accordingly.
"I love ramps _ they're one of my favorite foods," says Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing editor of the Serious Eats blog, who gets his at the farmers market and occasionally finds them at Whole Foods. "I buy as many as I can, and I immediately pickle half of them. I love them sauteed in brown butter, served with a runny fried egg for breakfast. I make dumplings stuffed with ramps and pork. They're also great on the grill, and I've never made this, but I had an awesome ramp soup recently at The Spotted Pig" _ another hip downtown Manhattan eatery.
Is all the adoration too much? This season, several scientists have raised the possibility that ramps, due to their ever-burgeoning popularity, are being overharvested in some parts of the United States, threatening their ultimate survival. There is little data, only anecdotal evidence, but it's enough to raise eyebrows. (Ramp sales have been banned in Quebec for years for that reason).
"You could go onto a hillside and say, `Oh my gosh, there are tons of them, so what's the big deal?'" says Lawrence Davis-Hollander, an ethnobotanist and author who has been at the forefront of those raising the alarm. "But we know that in other places they are being overharvested."
The trick, Davis-Hollander says, is to figure out how much of a ramp patch can be harvested, and how often, to avoid damage. "Is there a number of ramps we could take from a patch and leave it sustainable? Yes. Do we know what it is? No."
So how does something people have been eating for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, get to be so hot _ in the veggie world _ that it might even be endangered?
Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, thinks one answer lies in the concurrent popularity of the food-to-table movement, and the emphasis on seasonal produce.
"Ramps have been around for as long as there have been bogs and streams and meadows," says Cowin. "But as we've become increasingly obsessed with everything seasonal, that in turn has made us look toward what is truly fleeting _ and ramps are one of those things."
Though ardent foodies have been salivating over ramps for as long as two decades, Cowin says she's noticed an upswing in interest in the last five years. Maybe only a few specialized restaurants would have featured ramps prominently on the menu five years ago, she says, but as the farm-to-table movement has expanded to more and bigger restaurants, obviously demand has increased.
And the relative difficulty of obtaining ramps has, of course, only increased the veggie's cachet (some would say its snob appeal.) Asparagus? Sure, it's great, but you can get it year-round. But a ramp?
"It's like that elusive thing _ the bad boyfriend, the jazzy car of the vegetable world," jokes Cowin.
Forgione, the Tribeca chef, gets his ramps from several suppliers _ including a farmer who simply shows up at his door carrying two big grocery bags full, foraged in upstate New York. He says he has discussed the harvesting issue with his suppliers and welcomes the idea of regulating harvesting to preserve ramps for the future. "I want my grandkids to be able to eat ramps," he says.
When the ramps do arrive, heralding the true arrival of spring, Forgione goes to work. Among his creations for this season's tasting menu (offered only for three weeks): A tartare of hiramasa (a fish in the amber jack family) with avocado, surrounded by a swirl of little green droplets of ramp essence, or oil. A sweet pea ravioli with ramp brown butter. Bluefin tuna with grilled ramps and pea shoots. A ramp-crusted lamb loin.
"Now this is a fun one!" Forgione noted as he displayed another of his concoctions earlier this week: A mound of tender duck breast, with the crispy skin on one side, and on the other, a brilliant green crust made of ramps, bread crumbs, garlic and a little Parmesan cheese.
Upping the artistic ante, a Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab had little ramp pickles ensnared in its claws. And, for something sweet, a tiny mound of ramp ice cream was showered with foie gras shavings, creating an effect not unlike peanut brittle ice cream.
But with all the fanciness, Forgione says he himself prefers something much simpler.
"I truly think that a grilled ramp, with some olive oil and sea salt and maybe a splash of vinegar, is one of the five best things I can imagine eating in the world," he says. "At the end of the day, they just taste delicious, and that's really what people care about."