So many comely comestibles have arrived at my door the past few weeks, I’m close to having a Pavlovian response each time I hear the clunky transmission of a FedEx or UPS truck in my driveway.
- If price is no object, Lambda extra virgin olive oil, which retails for around $100 a bottle, will knock your gold-plated socks off…or at least make you take the silver spoon out of your mouth long enough to taste it in all its unctuous glory. This ultra premium oil (it says so right on the bottle) is pressed from Koroneiki olives on Crete, and is the closest thing to Homer’s “liquid gold” that I’ve tasted. Rich and buttery without being “oily,” Lambda brings to mind ripe bananas and mangoes. Its suave mouthfeel and forward tropical fruit tones could make it a debonair partner for an ultra premium (what else?) ice cream. The 500 ml bottle it comes in is just as charismatic and sexy as the oil with a classy wood-topped stopper. What a special hostess gift this would make, especially if your “hostess” is…say…George Clooney. Available through www.speironcompany.com, Athens, Greece. There is a two-bottle minimum and an extra charge for an armed security guard. Just kidding about the guard.
- Cheaper by a factor of roughly ten (restaurant owners and chefs…please pay attention here as this would make a killer “house” oil) but with panache in spades is Merula Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the Marquis’ Perales de Valdueza estate in southwestern Spain. It is a blend of Hojiblanca, Arbequina, Morisca, and Picual olives, and is one of the most limber extra virgins in my kitchen—green and fresh, but with affable pepper—perfect for hot and cold applications. It comes in a graphic, design award-winning tin (500 ml) featuring a merula, the yellow-beaked blackbird I saw flocking in the olive trees when I visited the estate last year. Contact The Rogers Collection, Portland, Maine (www.rogersintl.com), for retailers or for wholesaler information.
- Ají Amarillo Paste will sponsor some experiments this weekend in Peruvian cuisine. I finally found this elusive capsicum at www.amigofoods.com in Miami, Florida. It’s kinda sweet and kinda hot, and is a necessary ingredient, it appears, in the Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken my colleague, TJ Robinson, has frequently described to me in mouth-watering detail. While it’s true the dish has a big East Coast following, it’s also popping up on the West Coast. I found an outpost of “Pollo a la Brasa” in LA’s Koreatown; it roasts its chickens over hardwood logs. Not only do I plan to hit this place as soon as my luggage comes off the carousel at LAX, but I’m determined to develop a recipe for the home cook. I’ve also heard ají amarillo paste is great as a dip mixed into olive oil or mayonnaise.
- Speaking of mayonnaise, I’d heard rumors recently that two of the big names in mayo, Kraft and Hellmann’s, had introduced mayonnaise made with olive oil, clearly wanting a seat on the olive oil bandwagon now that we’re all finding out how healthy it is for us. I couldn’t find the products locally, but a friend sent me a container of Kraft’s “Mayo with Olive Oil,” which advertised itself on the label as “reduced fat mayonnaise.” That explained why water was the first listed ingredient, followed by olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, a few more recognizable things, and then all the ingredients Michael Pollan warns us to stay clear of in his book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (The Penguin Press, 2008). I haven’t opened it yet. The mayo, I mean. The book’s great.
Last, but by no means least, two pounds of one of my favorite alliums, ramps, arrived from one of my favorite online purveyors, www.earthydelights.com. (FYI: Earthy Delights is also a great source for morels and fiddleheads, all in season now.)
My man in brown—the UPS driver, tipped his chin toward the big flat box in his hands.
“What is in here?” he demanded. “Whatever it is, it seriously smelled up my truck!”
“Ramps?” I answered with a tentative smile. The look on his face told me he was among the uninitiated, and planned to stay that way.
I proffered the short answer: “They’re kind of like a cross between onions and garlic.” Understatement, pure and simple. In truth, ramps, sometimes called “wild leeks,” or “skunk onions,” are the alpha dogs of the genus allium, their pungency the stuff of folk legends.
My favorite story—even if there’s a chance it’s not true—involves a newspaper editor in Appalachia who, many years ago, recruited a chemist friend to help him synthesize eau de ramp. The pranksters blended the essence of ramps into the newspaper ink, creating quite a stink. The US Postal Service, it was said, even threatened to yank the paper’s second class postage permit.
As I waltzed the box to my cool-ish back porch—believe me, you really don’t want ramps perfuming everything in your refrigerator—I envisioned all kinds of culinary possibilities and tried to remember which midden in my office held the ramps cookbook I bought last year in West Virginia.
Am happy to report, Mrs. Norene Facemire, I was successful in excavating/extricating your self-published book, “Ramps: A Cookin’”. I’m especially anxious to try your idea for “Wilted Ramps,” a variation, of course, of a classic Wilted Lettuce Salad, which frugally and brilliantly uses just the broad, leafy tops. “Ramp and Sausage Cornbread” looks wonderful, too.
In the meantime, I’m going to make a big platter of Catalan grilled vegetables (Escalivada)— red, green, orange, and yellow bell peppers; asparagus spears; and eggplants— and serve them with a savory olive oil emulsion called “Romesco.” (Recipe below.) Then I’ll probably pop a few breath mints and wait for the UPS truck. Earthy Delights promised to fill my order of Spring morel mushrooms as soon as they come in!
I’ve “ramped” this recipe up a bit by substituting ramps for the garlic and onions found in a traditional romesco. This Spanish sauce is not only great with grilled vegetables, but makes a fine accompaniment to grilled seafood or meat.
Makes about 2 cups
1 dried ancho or pasilla chile
1 small red bell pepper
2 large or 3 medium fresh, ripe tomatoes
3 tablespoons whole almonds, blanched or unblanched
8 to 10 ramps, trimmed, or 1 small onion, quartered, plus 2 cloves garlic
skewered on a toothpick
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Spanish)
1 slice country-style white bread
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
You’ll also need:
A vegetable grate or perforated grilling pan
- Place the chile in a bowl and add warm water to cover. Soak until soft and pliable, about 30 minutes.
- Drain the chile, reserving the soaking liquid; blot dry with paper towels. If a milder sauce is desired, remove the seeds.
- Preheat the grill to high. When ready to cook, preheat a vegetable grate for 5 minutes. Brush the bell pepper and tomatoes with oil and grill until the skins are nicely charred, 10 to 15 minutes. Toss the almonds and the ramps (or the onion and garlic) with 2 tablespoons of the oil in a small bowl, then arrange these ingredients on the hot vegetable and cook, turning with a spatula, until each is nicely browned and aromatic. Brush the bread on both sides with oil and grill until nicely browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Grill the soaked and drained chile until crisp and fragrant, about 20 seconds per side. As they are done, transfer the grilled almonds, vegetables, bread, and chile to a platter and let cool. (If using garlic, remove the toothpick.)
- Remove any very charred skin from the tomatoes and peppers; core and seed the peppers. Transfer the tomatoes to a blender or food processor and puree to a smooth paste. Add the ramps (or onion and garlic) bell pepper, almonds, bread, chile, parsley, vinegar, remaining olive oil, and salt and black pepper. Process until smooth, adding enough of the reserved chile soaking liquid to make a pourable sauce. Correct the seasoning, adding salt or vinegar as necessary.
- Serve the sauce at room temperature. It will keep, tightly covered in the refrigerator, for up to 3 days.
Recipe adapted from The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing, 2008).
“Travel and Leisure” magazine reported recently that in an EPA study, one out of six planes tested positive for coilform bacteria in their water—the same water they use to make coffee or tea, or pass out on long flights when they run out of bottled water. Stick to canned or bottled beverages during flights, and use pre-packaged dental wipes to freshen your mouth. No more brushing your teeth in that tiny stainless sink.