Ramp Hunting Season
It’s spring in Chicago, and that means wonderful things: taxes are done, the yard is blooming, we can start drinking outside again, and we start to see some local produce—like ramps!
I spend all winter dreaming of mid-April, when ramps start popping up around the midwest, and then set aside plenty of money and time to procure and then process the bounty. Ramp season is short—usually only a few weeks long—so you have to pay attention and move fast.
Ramps are a member of the allium family—sort of a cross between a scallion, a leek and garlic. They are often referred to as “wild leeks,” “wood leeks” and “wild garlic”, although technically they are neither a leek or garlic. They are generally foraged rather than grown commercially, in the midwest and Appalachia in particular. And, it so happens, our fine city of Chicago was named after the local native indian name for the fragrant onion. They are pungent and sweet and have an incredible bite, and because they are one of the first vegetables to pop out of the ground in the spring and the growing season is so short, ramp lovers across the nation look forward to their arrival with baited breath.
We are lucky to have a friend who harvests wild ramps from his father’s property in Michigan, and he recently brought us four pounds to work with this year. I rolled up my sleeves and immediately got to work making ramp pesto, ramp butter and pickled ramps for future consumption, as well as tossing them into almost every dish I have been serving lately. (They’re particularly good with seared mushrooms and fresh pasta, with some butter and pecorino, in cornbread, and roasted with lemony chicken). I’ve also been known to use a pickled ramp and some of its brine in a take on a spring-centric dirty martini.
Post-season, ramp butter is one of my favorite secret ingredients to use all year long, so after pickling as many bulbs as I could and making a generous batch of pesto, I put the majority of the rest of our haul into butter form. I like to make enough to give small jars to some of my favorite people, keep a pint jar in the fridge for immediate use, and then freeze one ounce (2 tbsp) portions to toss into pastas and slow scrambled eggs, top grilled steaks, add into chicken liver pate, and simply spread on toast throughout the year. The process is really quite easy, and will give you a spring pop of flavor to any dish you add it to.
You will need:
½ lb ramps (you can use the whole ramp, or, if you’re like me and want to pickle as many bulbs as possible, you can just use the green leaves - just use about ¼ - ⅓ less total weight)
1 lb unsalted butter, room temperature (I like to use European-style butter, like Plugra, but you could use whichever butter you like, just limit the salt if using an already salted variety)
Generous pinch of flaky sea salt
First, you need to clean and separate your ramps - cut the ramps about halfway up the pink stem to separate the white bulb from the green leaves. You’ll need to slice off the root end, and then peel any outer layers of skin that are wilted or slimy and then rinse everything thoroughly.
Coarsely chop the white bulbs and set aside. Wash, thoroughly drain (a salad spinner works well here) and then coarsely chop the leaves and set aside.
Melt a few tbsp of the butter in a skillet over low heat and saute the bulbs and stems until soft. Set aside to cool. (Skip this step if you’re only using the leaves.)
Combine the rest of the butter, the green leaves and the sauteed bulbs and melted butter in a food processor with a generous pinch of sea salt and process until well incorporated.
You can immediately start using your butter on anything and everything, but I like to fill a small mason jar for immediate use for the fridge and then freeze the rest. I use a 1 oz scoop to portion balls of butter onto a parchment lined cookie sheet that will fit in my freezer. Once frozen, toss in a freezer bag and pull out a ball of ramp butter when you need it all year long!
Spreading ramp butter on a piece of toast—with a pinch of sea salt—is a simple pleasure that takes you back to Spring, no matter what time of year it is.
Happy Spring and happy ramp hunting!