My younger brother and I spent our Chicago winters and falls shuffling to and from Catholic school on city buses with other latchkey kids. We spent warmer weather at the playground behind our home, and our summers were dedicated to long days at Hollywood and Foster Beaches.
In my mind, forests only existed when followed by the word “preserve” and woods were only relevant if preceded by the name Dan Ryan. So, when the Florida native who would become my (Chef) husband realized I had never seen, heard of, nor tasted a ramp he was outdone. It was as dramatic a scene as Cersai being marched through the streets naked. “Hooooow can you be from Chicago and not know about ramps?!” *rings bell* *pelts me with rotten vegetable*.
The name Chicago is a colonized translation of the Indigneous word for “stinky onion”,Chickagou. The very allium believed to be a ramp (and, yes, they have a strong smell). Also known as wild leeks, ramps are indigenous to North America and grow in bunches on forest floors. Once you see their green, limp spear shaped leaves, you can’t unsee them. Which is a good thing since ramps appear briefly for about a month from April until May. Their limited appearance makes them an in-demand item for both local culinary professionals and foodies in the know.
After years of declined invitations, this city girl joined her husband for a foraging trip in the woods. In Des Moines. After a few clunky starts, I got better (Read: more efficient) at harvesting my very own stinky onions. According to a ramp expert and forest products technologist for the U.S. Forest Service quoted in a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, ramps reproduce by their seeds or bulb dividing. So plucking young ramps from the grounds is a no-no given it is less likely to have reproduced. Mature ramps are fair game, but that does not mean one should forage irresponsibly. Don’t be the pandemic toilet tissue hoarder of the forest and harvest an entire patch of ramps. Consider only foraging the visible leaves and leaving the stem and bulb unbothered since the entire plant is edible.
Ramps taste like…well, ramps. They’re often described as garlicky, oniony or a combination of both. They can be used in place of onions, leeks and scallions and served either raw or cooked. A trusted food resource recommends only trimming the ends immediately before use and wrapping them tightly in a plastic bag before storing them in the refrigerator for up to a week.
I planned on using my ramps within a day, so I followed my husband’s advice for cleaning and storage. I washed individual stems under running water and gently rubbed the tiny bulbs to remove the thin translucent skin you also find when you peel an onion. After the ramps were washed, I used a small paring knife to cut off the roots. Then, I allowed the ramps to completely dry before I refrigerated them in a food safe container. There is no shortage of ramp recipes out there.
Here are the recipes I used for my very first ramp haul.
Leo Robitschek’s Pickled Cocktail Onions from Imbibe Magazine
Sarah Gruenberg’s Ramp Buttermilk Dressing and Oma’s Green Mountain Salad from Food & Wine Magazine
Ramp Butter from Martha Stewart