Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Taming of The Ramp

What's the big deal with ramps?

Well, first off, they're pretty delicious in a familiar but very different way to their lily cousins. Nary a combination of garlic, scallion, and leek could ever quite match the wild musk that fills your head when you chomp down on a ramp. If the onion family were a line of colognes, then the ramp would be Sex Panther by Odeon. Or maybe even BK Flame. Needless to say, pretty powerful stuff.

But that's not all.

Above baby ramps, wafting their musky scent up through the early spring earth.

Ramps have cleverly made themselves scarce, thereby increasing demand. They have a very short season (only about six weeks in the spring) and they have the reputation for being uncultivable. The limited season situation is true, and seemingly unavoidable. But the theory of cultivability is a nasty rumor spread, no doubt, by those who could benefit from ramp scarcity: money-hungry farmers.

I can't get too upset at farmers and foragers for wanting to, well, ramp up their prices, but I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be this way. You, too, can grow your own ramps. All you'll need are some ramps to get started with, and a sugar maple or oak tree close to a wet, swampy area in the Eastern United States. Not too much to ask, really.

Ramps reproduce two ways, lucky bastards. They flower and go to seed, like most plants. Those seeds then drop and make new plants. But you'll have lots of trouble finding ramps seeds to plant. Ramps also reproduce by way of bulb offsets. This is the key to your future ramp garden. When you buy ramps at the farmers' market, make sure they come with the roots attached.

Before you cook with the ramps you've procured, remove the bottom 1/2-inch of bulb, keeping the roots attached. Store them, over night, covered by room temperature water. The next day, plant them in the damp soil around your eastern oak or maple and then forget about them for a year.

Or, spend the next eleven months dreaming about the ramps and their sacred scent of desire, like I do.

I planted six ramp bulbs two years ago. Last year six ramps popped up in early April. I ate them, leaving the bulbs in the ground. This year, I've found eleven so far. With any luck, I'll have twenty by next year. Now, you can do it too, tiger.

The swampy spring soil helps them reproduce, like gremlins, but stinkier in a good way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

So You Want to Be a Baller?

Nose to tail eating is an ethos that embodies political correctness. Who can't get behind the idea of using every part of an animal? Sure, every sknny-jean wearing hipster with this month's copy of Edible Wherever tucked under his arm can settle into a pork jowl or trotter and take one for the Fergus Henderson team. The added bonus is that pork jowls and trotters (when cooked the right way) are delicious. So eating head to tail in this way is a bit like going to church only twice a year, on Easter and Christmas. You can put in your time and feel good about yourself; everyone sees you there; it doesn't hurt too much.

But who really practices true head to tail eating? How many among us delight in brain, or tendon, or testicles? These nasty bits, although they have a small following, often go ignored. But in the religion of nose to tail, having brains AND balls is what transcends the eater from political correct do-gooder to true enlightened guru. And for the record, balls (when cooked the right way) are delicious.

Deer balls, when held tenderly, feel disturbingly familiar.

This is the time of year when I open my freezer and find strange body parts. Hunting season is long past and the choice cuts have been eaten. I'm left with things like deer testicles.

There are a few tricks and techniques that come in handy when cooking them. As with anything,the key to cooking testicles, is understanding the ingredient. Testicles (and this shouldn't be surprising) are naturally salty. They also (and this is always surprising) tend to explode. I learned the latter the hard way when my friend Alan roasted two pair a few years ago; four balls went into the oven, three balls came out. After that incident, I did a little research. This post is about sharing that knowledge with you as a way to help with your journey toward food enlightenment.

Testicles have two membranes that surround the glands. The outer membrane encases the balls- a sack, if you will. Kitchen sheers help to cut through the tough tissue which can then be peeled back and torn away from the inner membrane. This inner membrane (tunica albuginea, for those of you following along in your copy of Gray's Anatomy) is what makes the balls explode when they are heated. It can shrink immediately when it comes in contact with heat, forcing its contents (the actual gland) to shoot all over the inside of your oven. To avoid this (and you want to avoid this), the inner membrane needs to be punctured, allowing it to shrink away from the testicle.

Here's a video demonstrating the peeling, puncturing, roasting, and slicing of a pair of deer testicles. It features Trent, Steve, Greg, and Elvis.

If you've come as far as the video shows, the the hard work is done. Bread and fry the slices of balls as you would a fried green tomato. Most importantly, you can feel good about yourself as an eater knowing that none of an animal has gone to waste. Welcome to true food enlightenment; feel free to bask in the salinity.

Monday, March 1, 2010

On Learning to Listen

I've been keeping bees since I was 12 years old. That was 20 years ago, and still, they amaze me. I was a quick and able student in the beginning. Both my grandfather and next-door neighbor, Rob were eager teachers. Rob signed me up for beekeeping courses at the local community college, and my grandfather murmured instructions as we bent over the buzzing hives.

As told to do, I pulled frames from the hives, sliced open drone cells, lopped off queen cells, and inspected the bees' bodies closely, searching for mites. I executed orders like a mindless soldier. Smoke the hive? Done. Scrape propolis from the edges of the frames? I was on it. My brazen attitude was mirrored by the insects', and in the beginning, I got stung a lot. When the queen murmurs, "Sting the crap out of that kid; teach him a lesson," the workers listen. And it happened. Once, it happened and I almost died. I should have known better; I should have been listening. The bees sing to you or they scream at you - and that day, they were screaming.

And it sounds like a scream. The buzz of 60,000 angry bees sounds, well, just like that. Their pitch elevates when they're upset. It can get to the point when all you can hear are the bees, screaming with their wings. The cacophony is dotted with tiny staccato pats, the punctuated landings of a thousand angry workers dive-bombing your veil. It's scary.

The evening I went into anaphylactic shock, I was wearing a veil with a drawstring. These days, most veils are zippered onto full body suits, but until recently common honeybee veils had a drawstring at the bottom, which when pulled tight enough, would keep most of the bees on the outside. This technology speaks to the Zen of yesteryear's beekeeper. If a bee made its way inside your veil, you'd just relax, and she probably wouldn't sting you on your face. That peace of mind and body was more than I could handle at 16. That evening, ten bees made their way into my veil. Eight stung me on my neck, in a bull's eye around my jugular vein, before I ripped off my veil and started running. Between the hive and the car, I was stung four more times. I remember itching all over. I remember looking in the mirror. I didn't recognize the boy staring back. Then, I remember waking up.

Rob was with me that evening and he had saved my life. A shot of adrenalin (he's a doctor) brought me back to the night, gasping. I spent the next twelve hours throwing up.

Two weeks later I was checking beehives with my grandfather when he told me I should find another hobby. Bees were too dangerous for a boy like me. I felt hot in the face when I heard his words. As we leaned over the hive, the bees' tone grew higher, and I flushed, as if they echoed his thoughts.

I felt as though he didn't understand why I had tried to learn about bees in the first place. It was to spend time learning from him. I was angry. That night I called Rob and told him I needed to be cured of my allergy. He knew an allergist, he told me. Maybe there was something we could do.

I went to the allergist for the next four years. Every month, I received an injection of honeybee venom, after which I sat in the waiting room for an hour, waiting for a reaction. None came. But one hour a month for four years adds up to two full days of my life. It gave me enough time to reflect on what I had heard that late evening, enough time to completely understand the scream of the bees. I finally realized that they weren't screaming at me. They were screaming to me.

In exchange for a place to live the bees let me look into their world once in a while. If I bring nervous or negative energy to their house, or if I overstay my welcome, then I am being an unpleasant guest. It's rude on my part and they have no qualms about letting me know. Now, if I hear the pitch of the hive increase, I know it's time to leave. Since I've learned to listen to the bees, I have not been stung in over fifteen years.

Last weekend I drove from my Brooklyn apartment to the family farm where I keep the bees. Snowdrifts spilled out onto the road, like pure white dunes. The wind made them move like water. The snow covering the lane to the farmhouse was three feet deep. I had to park the car on the side of the road and walk, taking a break every hundred yards to catch my breath.

As I approached the hive I was surprised. The bees had cleared their front entrance of snow. The warmth they generate had radiated upward and melted any that would have collected on top of the hive. I wanted to see if they were alright, but opening the hive would let their warmth escape. I've learned when not to impose.

I bent over and placed my ear on the side of their home. It felt cold. I closed my eyes and listened. From inside there was a calm, steady hum. It sounded something like, "We're alright, we can take care of ourselves, we'll see you in the spring."