When the ferns unfurl, the red buds are in full bloom and the asparagus hit Green City Market’s tables, spring has finally arrived in Chicago. And at this moment, we can no longer bemoan our Midwestern domicile. I’ve been chatting a lot about seasonal differences between here and Sunny Cal with my friend and best-selling author, Dianne Jacobs. She’s bragged about the ruby-red strawberries and the bulging peas, which are in no short display at the many farmers markets available to her. I was able to exact a small concession when I began to wax poetic about our stinky food mascot, the ramp – a complete unknown on the left coast.
I first learned of ramps from my former in-laws. Wealthy folks with more money than palate, they had read about a festival celebrating the pungent harbinger of spring in the Appalachian region in some foodie magazine. They drove their Jaguar XJ-something to the small town in the hills to find out what the fuss was about. I’m not sure what they expected but they were sorely disappointed to find a simple gathering of humble folks celebrating the equally humble ramp.
Ramps are in the allium family, related to onions, leeks and garlic, and have, in fact, been referred to as the wild version of each of these relations. As any foodie or trivia lover can tell you, the name of our fine city comes from the Native American word for the ramp, shikako. So, ironic it is that my first exposure to a ramp was in my native New York. At Union Square Market, I collected the ingredients for a mothers day dinner to prepare for my family. I was delighted to find the lovely pink-tinged, flat-leaved stem. I cooked up a little bacon, softened the ramps in the fat and braised them in chicken stock. I’ve found that this method tames the ramps sometimes overpowering flavor.
With new vegetables arriving at the market each week, the ramp’s time shall soon pass. But before then, enjoy it when you can. Chefs around town are doing wonderful things with it. Whether pickled, braised or even smoked, the ramp is a real taste of the Midwest. Eat it with pride.
For Fresh Pick’s Open House, I scored the first-of-the-season ramps and made close to 300 miniature ramp, bacon and goat cheese tartlets. Here’s the far more manageable, scaled-down recipe for 1 tart.
Ramp & Goat Cheese Tart
Pate Brisee (makes 2 tart shells):
2 ½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 sticks cold unsalted butter
¼-½ cup ice water
3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
4 ramps, cleaned and trimmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
Milk, cream or half-and-half to make 1 ½ cups of liquid when mixed with the 3 large eggs
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 grinds black pepper
2 ounces goat cheese
Tart shell: Mix together flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut each stick of butter into four long logs and then cut each log into eight pieces. Chill the butter and dry ingredients for 5 minutes, ideally in the freezer. Add the butter pieces to the food processor and pulse until the mixture looks like coarsely-ground cornmeal. Add the water through the feeding tube and pulse until just combined. Dump the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap and push together with your knuckles. Chill for an hour. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Roll the dough out to about ¼-inch thick. Fit into a 9-inch fluted tart shell. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Cover with a piece of aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 5-10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely.
Filling: Fill tart shell with crumbled bacon. Finely mince ramp the pink-white portion of the ramp (reserve the greens). Heat the butter in a small sauté pan. Add the minced ramp and cook until softened. Cool slightly. Finely mince ramp greens and add to sauté pan. Whisk together eggs, dairy, salt and pepper. Add the ramps. Pour over the bacon and sprinkle goat cheese on top. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until set. Serve immediately or at room temperature.