by Becky Liscum
RAMP UP, CHICAGO: Botanical name: Allium tricoccum. It's a flowering perennial plant that grows in clusters and found in forests. Usually available for harvest in April through May in our region. The wild Ramp is considered a delicacy and served raw in salads, sauteed, or slow roasted. They are also added to vinaigrettes, cream based sauces, soups, pastas and even pizza.
You know it’s ramp season in the city of Chicago when the early spring vegetable starts popping up on the menus of local restaurants where the chefs are known for cooking with seasonal ingredients. Many chefs celebrate this brief season and head to Central Illinois for ramp digs—accepting an exclusive invitation from the farmers who grow them.
Lasting just a few short weeks, ramps (also called wild leeks) are a member of the allium family and are native to North America. They have a particular connection to Chicago. The name ‘Chicago’ is said to derive from the Native American word Chickagou, which means onion field or “stinky onion”. The plants were once a common sight along the banks of the Chicago River and shores of Lake Michigan. Its bright green, flat leaves, maroon colored stem, and slender bulb about the size of a scallion, are all edible. The odor is very pungent and the flavor is unique—a combination of garlic and onion. One clump of ramps can produce as many as 60 bulbs. It’s a treasured spring treat when added to dishes. Or savor the vegetable after its season has passed by pickling the stinky onion. But, take note, like spring in the Midwest, ramp season is brief and is different every year. It can arrive as early as mid-April or last through May. So, now is the time to enjoy ramps wherever you can find them.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited by a farmer for a ramp dig, you’re all set. For those less fortunate, buy them from local farmers, look for them at area farmers markets, and support restaurants that blend them into the menu. Just point your nose in the right direction.