Ramp it up

April 21, 2008 8:42:01 AM PDT
Spring has officially sprung, and one of the first signs in the kitchen is the appearance of ramps on local menus.Our food reporter says a recent ramp "dig" downstate yielded a lot of these wild spring onions, which are now showing up all over town.

Off into the woods they go, searching, scrounging and digging - part of an annual rite of spring among the hard-core culinary minions. One "ramp dig" two-and-a-half weeks ago, took place near Fairbury, Illinois - about two hours from the city - on the Spence family farm. Some of Chicago's top chefs were lured there, part of an effort by The Land Connection - an educational non-profit encouraging farmers to raise food for locals who want it.

"Gradually they realized that these weren't really weeds, these were actually a really valuable native plant that chefs really wanted," said Terra Brockman, The Land Connection.

They're pretty easy to spot, and more than anything, they signal the earth is ready to start producing food again. Any chef who claims to work within the seasons will tell you ramps are both symbolic and necessary.

"Ramps are kind of the first official rite of spring. It's kind of a cross between you know, leek and garlic," said Brockman.

At Vie, in Western Springs, Chef Paul Virant is one of those hyperlocal, hyperseasonal types. He put ramps on his spring menu as soon as he got back from the dig.

"They're actually easy to find in the woods because they're almost, there's almost no other green on the forest floor, aside from the tops of the ramps," said Paul Virant, Vie.

Virant adds creme fraiche to ramps, creaming them; he'll toast bread, top it with Wisconsin cheese, then add slices of grilled steak, spinach, and crowns the entire dish with the creamed ramps. Grilled trout and fingerling potatoes are nothing new, but when he adds some thinly-sliced prosciutto from Iowa, grilled ramps and radishes, it becomes an upscale, Midwestern dish.

"It's a big sigh of relief, that Spring is finally here," he said.

Virant is a big fan of fresh ramps. He gets about 30 pounds delivered each week from the Spence farm in Fairbury. That season runs through May, but he will pickle about a third of those and keep them on the menu all year long.

Steve says if it weren't for ramps, there'd be no Chicago, since the city takes its name from the Indian word for "wild onion." And some other local restaurants now carrying ramps on their menus include Lula in Logan Square, Va Pensiero in Evanston and Blackbird downtown.

Vie
4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs
708-246-2082

The Land Connection
847-570-0701
www.thelandconnection.org

Other local restaurants carrying ramps:

Frontera Grill
449 N. Clark S.
(312) 661-0381

Frontera Fresco
111 N. State St.
(312) 781-4884

Blackbird
619 W. Randolph St.
(312) 715-0708

Lula Cafe
2537 N. Kedzie
(773) 489-9554

Crofton On Wells
535 N. Wells St.
(312) 755-1790

Carnivale
702 W. Fulton St.
(312) 850-3017
Avec
615 W. Randolph St.
(312) 377-2002

312 Chicago
171 W. Randolph St.
(312) 696-2420

North Pond
2610 N. Cannon Dr.
(773) 477-5845

Green Zebra
1460 W. Chicago Ave.
(312) 243-7100

Naha
500 N. Clark St.
(312) 321-6242

Blue Water Grill
520 N. Dearborn St.
(312) 777-1400

Custom House
500 S. Dearborn St.
(312) 523-0200

Hot Chocolate
1747 N. Damen Ave.
(773) 489-1747

MK Restaurant
868 N. Franklin St.
(312) 482-9179

Keefer's Restaurant
20 W. Kinzie St.
(312) 467-9525

Shikago Restaurant
190 S. LaSalle St.
(312) 781-7300

Le Lan
749 N. Clark St.
(312) 280-9100

One Sixty Blue
160 N. Loomis St.
(312) 850-0303

May Street Market
1132 W. Grand Ave.
(312) 421-5547

Alinea
1723 N. Halsted St.
(312) 867-0110

Tizi Melloul
531 N. Wells St.
(312) 670-4338

Takashi
1952 N. Damen Ave.
(773) 772-6170

Va Pensiero
1566 Oak Ave., Evanston
(847) 475-7779

Cafe Matou
1846 N. Milwaukee
(773) 384-8911

Maijean
30 S. Prospect, Clarendon Hills
(630) 794-8900

Where you can buy ramps:

Chicago Game & Gourmet
350 N. Ogden
312-455-1800

Earthy Delights
800-367-4709
www.earthy.com

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