Why are Chicago chefs so obsessed with ramps? French explorers derived "Chicago" from shikaakwa, the Miami-Illinois name for the stinky wild onion, which once grew abundantly along Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. So it's only fitting that local chefs scramble to put this pungent vegetable on their menus as soon as they can get their hands on it.
Ramp season usually starts around early April and runs through May, although it's all subject to the weather. To extend their season, many chefs get ramps from multiple sources including specialty produce suppliers and directly from farmers.
Chef Kevin Hickey's Allium is named after the onion genus, and he is also excited about this particular onion, Allium tricoccum. He pickles ramp bulbs and uses the tops to create a Chimichurri sauce for an Alaskan halibut entree and he also uses ramps in risotto. "We've got ramps everywhere right now," Hickey says. "Crispy tempura ramp tops on of our risotto and on top of all our steaks." To extend the vegetable's season, Hickey pickles the bulbs, and blanches and purées the tops, and freezes the purée. "We'll have some aspect of them for a couple months at least," he says. "We kind of just buy whatever we can get. We even get them from our maple syrup provider, Burton Farms, since he has them all over his property."
Sometimes, folks even show up unannounced at restaurants (like Sepia) to sell ramps. "By this time of year we are pretty tired of root vegetables and cooking winter food," says Sepia's Chef Andrew Zimmerman. "Ramps are one of the first types of spring produce to poke their heads out." This year, Zimmerman is using ramps in a potato soup and as an accompaniment to steak.
"If you find a good spot in the woods, the entire floor is carpeted with ramps," he says. "You can pick 'em all day and hardly feel like you made a dent." For something so plentiful, ramps are fairly expensive, up to $15 per pound. That's because they are delicate and difficult to harvest.
Zimmerman appreciates the toil because he has dug ramps up himself before. "Harvesting ramps is not fun," he says. "If you try to pull them out, they'll snap and the bulb will be left in the ground. Nobody wants to buy that." Ramps also take a long time to clean. "We get them at various stages of cleanliness depending on who we're buying them from," he says.
At Storefront Company, Chef Bryan Moscatello features ramps as the main ingredient in an appetizer where he prepares ramps four ways: pickled, grilled, as a custard and as a foam. He is even switching up his signature garlic Parker House rolls and filling them with ramps. "You really appreciate them because you have to wait all year long so you want to play with them like crazy when they do pop up," he says. "We'll probably do a ramp-themed kitchen counter menu."
For more ramp dishes around town, check out our slideshow.