In the forested glades and hollows of the Allegany highlands, wild leeks—locally called “ramps”—show their broad green leaves in the early spring. The strong garlic-like odor and a pronounced onion flavor have made these wild onions both a traditional wildfood and a recently discovered gastronomic celebrity.
The word ramp comes from "rams," or "ramson," the Elizabethan term for the wild garlic. The greens range from South Carolina to Canada, and are considered a spring delicacy. However, the garlic odor is particularly strong, and even ramp-lovers advise caution and recognize that a big meal of ramps may lead to other people maintaining a noticeable distance.
In southwestern Pennsylvania’s Butler County—almost dead center in the ramp’s geographic range—adventurous foodies can sample both ends of “wood leek’s” culinary spectrum. Chef de Cuisine Chris O’Brien, at the upscale Restaurant Echo in Cranberry Township, prepares a ramp soup that takes full advantage of the ramps’ distinctive flavor without assaulting the taste buds. The thick soup is almost the consistency of a potage, with a mild flavor.
Chef Fiore Moletz’s take on the seasonal greens is completely different. The owner of Burgh’ers Restaurant in Harmony, pickles the ramps and serves them as a side dish or appetizer. Using his own pickling mix and a substantial amount of sugar gives the ramps a sweet flavor without hiding their potent tang. They are the perfect accompaniment to his excellent, custom crafted hamburgers made from locally sourced beef. Also, try his rosemary fries, a delicious departure from the norm.
Leeks aren’t the only traditional regional dish that visitors can sample while in Butler County. The Old Stone House, a historic inn and museum of rural life in Slippery Rock, hosts “Taste of History” programs, enabling visitors to learn about local history and traditional foods and cooking techniques. Built in 1822 by John Brown, The Stone House was a stagecoach stop and tavern that served travelers on the newly constructed Pittsburgh to Erie Pike, a busy highway that carried traffic northward from the forks of the Ohio River.
Today, The Stone House’s heritage cooking programs use authentic, period correct recipes prepared using traditional techniques. Visitors can enjoy a hands-on, interactive history lesson and sample the foods that were prepared when America still traveled by horseback.
The Old Stone House also presents Early American Cooking demonstration lessons, conducted by tavern chefs Stan Malecki and Bill McGary. Each lesson showcases the techniques and recipes of a different era of American history.
For More Information:
Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau, 866-856-8444, www.visitbutlercounty.com
Restaurant Echo, 724-779-3246, www.restaurantecho.com
Burgh’ers Restaurant, 724-473-710, http://www.burghersinc.com/
Old Stone House, 724-738-4964, http://www.oldstonehousepa.org/
For recipes and more of Reed Hellman’s signature culinary adventures, visit his Website at http://www.reedhellmanwordsmith.com/. You can follow his monthly columns in Recreation News and read his feature articles in Business Monthly.