Once Upon a Time in China and America

“Stinky Ox Among Lilies.” Or, to be blunt, bison and ramp stir-fry. The bison is amazingly tender and flavorful and the ramps mellow considerably in the high heat of the wok. It is a nice switch on a beef and garlic flavor profile.

This is a story.

About a wok, a hunk of buffalo meat and a handful of wild garlic.

In other words, a wok, a bison steak and some ramps walked into my kitchen, and the wok said, “Hey, guys, come over here and meet my friend, the stove.” The bison steak and ramps looked at each other and said, “Why the hell not?”

And the rest, as they say is history. Okay, it only happened Wednsday night, so it isn’t old enough to be history, but it at least makes for a good blog entry.

And the ramps and steak didn’t walk in, I carried them.

In fact, the ramps, I dug up with my very own hands from the woods at our old place in Pataskala yesterday. They gave our car a nice fragrance as we drove home, and then I carried them up to the kitchen to clean them so I could put them in the fridge for the next evening’s dinner.

These ramps are fairly mature, so they actually had bulblets at the end of their stems; these you have to clean very carefully. They have a papery membrane, like a less well-developed onion skin, loosely covering the bulbs, and this has to be removed. Then you rinse carefully, and pull or cut off the root end. To store them, I wrapped them in damp paper towels and put them in a loosely closed paper bag. They will keep for several days like that.

Here is a comparison between an uncleaned ramp bulb and a cleaned one. The dirt clings to the papery membrane that is similar to an onion skin. Cleaning is a simple matter of stripping off the membrane, breaking off the root end, and rinsing everything well. I generally wait until I am ready to use them before breaking off the roots.

I only cleaned the ones I was going to use the next day. The paper membrane helps keep them fresh, so I put the unwashed ones that were still coated in forest dirt in a second paper bag and closed it a bit more tightly and put them into the fridge as well. They will keep a couple of days longer that way. They are going to be featured in the Indian food extravaganza that is being cooked up later today in preparation for having friends over for the first “having friends over” thing in the new house.

Cleaned mature ramps showing the gradation of brilliant color: icy white bulblets, garnet stem and verdant leaves. All parts of the ramp are edible and very flavorful.

For now, let me talk about the ramps and bison fusion.

The bison meat was a sirloin steak that I trimmed and cut into thin strips for stir frying.

I decided that I wanted to very strongly feature the meat and ramps, so I kept the other seasonings fairly subtle. I thought of going totally Cantonese in style, but discarded that idea; I am still better at “winging it” in a more Sichuanese style, so I brought out the chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, though I was very careful to use them in a subtle fashion. I was careful to use only light soy sauce and Shao Hsing wine (unsalted–I found out that the local market carries it of drinking quality!) instead of using dark soy which is more usual with beef. I did not use any other condiments but a bit of shredded ginger.

For vegetables, I went with carrot, jicama and Shanghai bok choy. And of course, the greens of the ramps–I used roughly two cups of them which is enough to consider them a vegetable.

I used the bulbs and stems of the ramps minced in place of garlic, and I used a bit of onion cut into strips and ginger cut jullienne to round out the flavors. A drizzle of sesame oil finished everything off.

Zak suggested a name for this dish: “Strong-Scented Ox Among Lilies.” I prefer “Stinky Ox Among Lilies.” Saying “stinky” harkens to a favorite Chinese ingredient, “stinky tofu,” and it satisfies my urge to give my dishes fun and funky names.

“Strong-scented” or “stinky,”refers not only to the fact that bison have a distinctive odor when you visit them up close (we went to a friend’s bison ranch up in Massachussets a few years back) but also to the strong scent that the ramps have. Ox, of course, refers to the bison. Lilies refers to the ramps; all alliums, including ramps, onions, garlic, chives and leeks are members of the lily family.

So, the poetic name is full of double entendre and wordplay–a Zak’s favorite sort of linguistic game.

It turned out well. As Dan Trout put it, “Oh, Barbara. It is ass-awful as usual. We’ll have to eat all of the evidence just to protect your reputation.” Thus stating his opinion, he tucked in and made good on his promise. What a trooper. I don’t know what I would do without my friends!

The bison is remarkably tender and has a delicious flavor that is not gamey, but not exactly like beef, either. It is somewhat sweet, which makes it a good match for the ramps. And, as I noted above, the high heat of the wok seemed to bring out the sweetness in the ramps, so the entire dish was strongly flavored, but in a thoroughly pleasant way.

I believe it was a successful experiment in fusing Chinese technique and condiments with native American foodstuffs.

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