Photo credit: Bobbi Bowers/Fresh and Foodie
If there’s one ingredient that can make chefs and food lovers salivate every spring, it’s ramps—the wild onion that’s hard to come by, seasonally brief and the first sign that spring has officially kicked off, ushering in for Chicago the coming of nicer weather and sunny days. Sometimes referred to as a wild leek, they are a pungent cross between an onion and garlic and are slightly sweeter than their counterparts. A common preparation is fresh off the grill, but they shine in a variety of dishes, including omelets, quesadillas or in butter form, a favorite preparation of our Sous Chef, Melissa Chickerneo, who describes the moment she fell in love with the mysterious allium.
“It was a warm spring afternoon, sometime in early May, when I met my true love — ramps. I was working at Oceana Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. It was a busy, demanding, three-star restaurant where every day it felt like a battle to stay alive. I hardly had time to notice what day of the week it was let alone what season. My sous chef, Levi, brought a big black garbage bag smelling of fresh soil and dropped it onto my workstation. I opened the brimming bag to reveal vibrant green leaves with purple roots that faded to white, each one holding a small clump of dark black dirt still wet from the morning’s rain. I was instructed to gently snip off the roots and, with a damp towel, wipe each tender leaf free of any sand. A soulful task, until you have cleaned three sheet pans full and are only half way through the bag.
After about two hours of painstakingly cleaning each ramp, I had completed my assignment and had grown quite resentful of these mini leeks. I remember thinking, “Why all this work for tiny leeks when you can clean a few big commercially grown leeks to produce the same amount of product?” That evening Levi returned to my workstation, this time wielding a large All-Clad sauté pan and a pad of French butter. Without a word, he placed the heavy pan over a blazing flame, tossed in the butter and a heaping handful of my precious ramps. With a pinch of salt and a toss of the pan, he was done. He handed me a gently wilted, slightly caramelized bundle of greens. The minute it hit my lips I knew I was in love. In that very instant, it all made sense why I had spent all day cleaning them, why the dirt was still wet from being picked that morning, why an unshaven old man with muddy boots came to the delivery door with a garbage bag to hand deliver them. Why I wanted to be a chef, and why I will forever wait out cold winters to have spring deliver me it’s finest treat.
As I have matured as a chef, I still look forward to my first spring delivery of hand- foraged ramps. To extend the life of these seasonal treats, I have found a few great techniques to preserve them. Next winter, when you pull a pad of ramp butter out of the freezer to place atop a seared steak or munch on a pickled ramp at lunch, you will close your eyes and imagine it is spring and winter will seem a little less cold.”
Bring a new twist to your table with Sous Chef Melissa Chickerneo’s favorite preparation of ramps.
2 pounds of butter, unsalted, room temperature
1 pound of ramps, greens only and well cleaned
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
Bring at least two gallons of water to a boil in a large stock pot. Set up a large bowl filled with ice water and set a colander inside the bowl. Quickly submerge ramp greens in the boiling water and remove after 20 seconds. Place in the ice bath to stop the cooking process and retain the color. Once the ramp greens are fully cooled, remove from ice water and squeeze dry. Be sure to remove as much water as possible. Place ramps in a food processor and pulse on high until ramps are well chopped but not pureed. Add softened butter, salt, and pepper and combine. Make logs of ramp butter and roll in parchment paper. Can be used atop seared steak or in place of regular butter. Lasts a week in the refrigerator and can be frozen up to one year.
1 16-ounce canning jar with lid
1 tea towel
1 pound of ramps, whites only, washed, roots trimmed
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole coriander
2 cloves garlic, whole
1 bay leaf, fresh
1 sprig of thyme
1 pinch chili flakes
¾ cup rice wine vinegar, unseasoned
¾ cup water
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Submerge jar, lid and ring in boiling water to sterilize. Set aside on a clean tea towel. Combine all ingredients, except ramps, in a small saucepan. Over low heat, bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar and salt. Place all ramps in canning jar then pour the hot pickling liquid over them, gently tapping the jar to release any trapped air, leaving ½ inch of space. Apply ring and lid, making sure that the rim is clean to create a tight seal. Let cool at room temperature then place in the refrigerator for at least one week before eating.
Have a ramp story or other food moment you’d like to share? Tag your #InTheKitchen inspirations with us on Instagram at @blueplatechicago.