What to do with ramps: Albanian peta



Ramp peta, with ramp pesto

A few years back friend of the Food Chain Jim Samata was strolling through his western-suburban neighborhood when he caught a powerful whiff of raw onion in the air. He followed his nose to a vacant lot where a mansion had recently been demolished. There, above a shaded gully, some workers were trimming trees and creating the olfactory disturbance when the limbs crashed into the understory. The depression was carpeted in ramps, the wild stinking onion from which our city takes its name (chicagou, in the indigenous tongue), and which inspire a culinary madness among chefs each spring, as they're among the very first edible things to poke out of the ground.

The lot has been scheduled for development ever since the house was taken down, but the project keeps getting delayed, so every year Samata goes in and harvests with a certain sense of urgency, much to the puzzlement of the neighbors who don't have a clue what he's doing. It's hard to believe, given the late onset of spring, but ramp season is nearly over, so a small posse headed out to Samata's turf last week to do some digging before it was too late.

Ramp-stuffed peta

But lunch was priority one. Samata, a retired firefighter, grew up working in his mom and dad's restaurant, Trotters. No, not that Trotter's. It was a family restaurant in Maywood, its name alluding to the town's storied harness racing track. Anyway, Samata can cook anything off the top of his head, and he'd prepared an all-ramp feast that included mozzarella crostini with grilled ramps, ramp-potato soup, leg of lamb with ramp dressing, and the showstopper: an 18-inch peta, or burek, stuffed with eggs, cottage cheese, feta, and freshly plucked ramps. The recipe, handed down from Samata's Albanian grandmother, was a seasonal thing, occasionally served to regulars in the restaurant, but eaten by the family regularly. In spring they made it with spinach (or ramps), in summer, sauerkraut, and in winter, ground beef and lamb with onion, tomato, and garlic. At New Year's they hid a coin inside for good luck, but they always made it with homemade filo dough that turned out a buttery crust so flaky that if you took it outside you had to worry about it blowing away.

Nearly everyone in Samata's extended family can make peta—he says his daughter's is better than his. His wife Karen took down the recipe for me and now you can make it too. There might still be some ramps out there if you hurry.

Ramps, somewhere in suburbia

Jim Samata's ramp peta

7 cups unbleached flour
About 2 cups water
2 tsp salt
1 lb unsalted butter, clarified
12 whole eggs, plus 3 yolks, beaten
24 oz large-curd cottage cheese
1/2 lb feta
1 1/2 lb ramps, roughly chopped in food processor

18-inch deep-dish pizza pan
2-foot-long rolling pin (we use a wooden dowel purchased at a hardware store)

Mix flour, water, and salt in a large bowl to make the dough (it shouldn't be too wet or too dry). Add more flour or water as needed. Cut in half to make two dough balls, one slightly bigger than the other, one for the top of the peta, one for the bottom. Wrap them in plastic and let them rest overnight in the refrigerator.

The next day, bring the dough to room temperature. Roll out a dough ball to a very thin sheet, at least twice the size of your pan. Butter the top and fold in half. Butter the top of that and fold in half again. Keep folding and buttering until it forms back into a ball. Wrap it in plastic and put in back in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Repeat with second dough ball.

Saute the ramps in a pan till soft. In a large bowl, combine eggs, cottage cheese, feta and ramps. Set aside.

Use the larger dough for the bottom. Roll out dough gently onto a floured surface, big enough to go up the sides of the pan. Fill the pan with the egg mixture.

Roll out the smaller dough to the size of the pan and place over the mixture, rolling the bottom edge over the top to form a crust. Do not cut vent holes on top.

Bake at 350 degrees for one hour turning at least twice. Let cool and slice.

Jim Samata

Fistful o ramps

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