My introduction to ramps came in the middle of April one year, in a splinter of a town called Richwood. This literal one-stoplight community, nestled deep in the West Virginian mountains, bills itself as the “Ramp Capital of the World” and is home to the NRA. (Not that NRA; the National Ramp Association.) I was attending the town’s annual Feast of the Ramson, a five-hour food festival that is arguably the largest ramp feed in the world. And once I saw my meal, I concluded this was arguably the largest serving of ramps ever scooped onto a single plate. It was “a mess of ramps,” as they say in West Virginia. Oh, and a hog-ton of pork, too.
Served alongside every heaping pile of ramsons—which were sautéed in bacon fat—were eighteen cubic inches of cornbread, three fried potato wedges, a half-pint of soup beans (simmered in bacon lard), three strips of bacon, and two thick slices of ham. I didn’t have to engage my sixth sense to conclude that pork and ramps must go really well together.
But had I been in New York City at the time, it would be obvious that pasta and ramps made a perfect union. New Yorkers are ravenous for ramps, and for good reason. Ramps are typically the first local spring vegetable of the year. Tired of the winter root vegetables and the out-of-season tomatoes and squash, New Yorkers herald the arrival of spring with fresh ramps. And these folks feel the best way to showcase this vernal veggie is through a big plate of pasta.
As I consumed more ramps through the years, I have discovered that eggs and ramps are a heavenly match, too. Scrambled eggs and ramps, ramp omelets, ramp frittatas, and ramp quiches are all simple, yet delightful dishes. Yes, West Virginians love their ramps with pork. And New Yorkers prefer ramps with pasta. But this Californian reveres ramps with eggs.
But there’s no need to sample three different dishes to decide for yourself which of these principal ingredients pairs best with ramps. (Though that would be a delectable and enviable experiment.) You could try one dish that brings cured pork, pasta, and eggs together on a single plate: a traditional spaghetti carbonara. Just add one decidedly nontraditional, unabashedly American ingredient.
I must admit, I’m not ordinarily a spaghetti fan. I love round noodles in Asian dishes, but for Italian fare, I prefer flat varieties, like linguine, fettucine, tagliatelle and pappardelle (angel hair is the one exception). But carbonara was made for spaghetti, and it is almost inconceivable that such a luxuriously silky dish could be made so quickly and so simply by stirring pasta with cheese, eggs, and cured pork. This is certainly my favorite spaghetti dish. And with the addition of fresh ramps, this might be me favorite seasonal pasta dish of all time.
Traditional carbonara uses guanciale (jowl bacon) and Pecorino Romano cheese. I find Pecorino Romano to be a bit sharp and prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano for this dish. And guanciale can be difficult to source in the United States, so many substitute with pancetta (belly bacon) or American slab bacon. I use slab bacon here.
If you use American bacon, you may find the fat develops a fond rather quickly, which for this dish, isn’t desirable. To combat that, I often cook the bacon with the top quarter of a small lemon which helps deglaze the pan as you stir. The lemon also cuts the unctuousness of the pork, giving the meat a welcome bright note.
4 ounces uncured slab bacon (or guanciale or pancetta)
1 lemon top (about ¼ of the lemon)
6 whole ramps, finely chopped
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (or Pecorino Romano, or a combination of both), plus more for garnish
¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
8 ounces spaghetti
Salt to taste
Dice the bacon into ½-inch cubes and place in an unheated sauteuse pan. Cook on the stovetop over medium heat. (Don’t preheat the pan or use high heat, as the goal is to slowly render the fat from the pork, not sear it.)
Toss in the lemon top and use it like a scrub to deglaze the pan as the fat is rendered. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat once the pork is fully cooked and just starting to crisp. Now add the chopped ramps and sauté for another 30 seconds. Turn off the heat and discard the lemon top.
While the bacon is cooking, grate the cheese into a large bowl, add the pepper and the eggs and beat just until everything is incorporated.
Boil the pasta in a large pot of generously salted water and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, but reserve ½ cup of the water, in case you need it to smooth the sauce.
As soon as the pasta is drained, pour the hot noodles into the pan with the pork and ramps and quickly toss. Now immediately pour in the egg and cheese mix. The heat from the pasta will cook the eggs, and to keep them from scrambling, you’ll need to work quickly and use both hands. With one hand, stir the pasta with the eggs using tongs or a wooden spatula, and with the other hand, agitate the pan back and forth. This spreads the beaten eggs thinly and evenly, and ensures every noodle is coated in the luxuriously silky sauce. If the sauce isn’t creamy enough, add a little of the residual hot pasta water while continuing to stir. Now taste the finished dish and add salt if necessary. (I find, when using bacon, I seldom need additional salt.)
Plate the pasta immediately on your favorite Fiestaware and party-on with more pepper and Parmigiano, if you like.