Ramps are wild leeks, with broad leaves, a snow-white bulb, and a purplish maroon stem. Native to our part of North America, ramps are believed to be the wild onions that inspired indigenous people to give the future site of Chicago the name “Chickagou,” which roughly translates as “stinky onion.”
About fifteen or so years ago, we were invited out to Spence Farms to pick ramps as part of their annual ramp dig. This communal event, which attracted several Chicago chefs, fueled the then growing interest in sourcing local produce. In Chicago, there are few foods more local than ramps.
Oak Park’s Carnivore is all about sourcing local foods, and at this superb source for meat and fish, Brad Knaub and Danica Kempe are producing a ramp cream that is simply terrific.
“Both Danica and I,” Knaub explains, “made gallons and gallons of basil cream when we worked at La Sardine,” a now-closed restaurant previously owned by another Oak Park family, the Poileveys (Oliver Poilevey is the chef at the still-open – and wonderful – Le Bouchon). “Danica and I had made sauce like this hundreds of times,” Knaub continued,” so we knew that, technically, it would work.”
“The best thing about ramps,” says Knaub, “is, um, sugar and dirt,” and there is a certain sweetness and a pleasant earthiness about these wild onions.
“Beets and caramelized onions are also good for that same reason,” says Knaub. “So, it seemed like a slam dunk to make an almost Alfredo kind of super creamy pasta sauce with ramps.”
The recipe is simple, with just the ramps, cream, butter, a little white wine, and salt. The slight sharpness of the ramp is tempered by the creaminess of the sauce. With this stripped down preparation, and only a few ingredients, the flavor of the ramps comes through cleanly, which is the way to go when you’re cooking such a relatively rare wild plant: if you can get your hands on some, you want to be able to taste them.
Though enterprising foragers can find ramps growing wild in many locations, a professional kitchen like the one at Carnivore needs a steady, reliable supplier. Knaub and his team get their ramps from Odd Produce (great name) and Spence Farms, where I had my first ramps years ago. “Spence takes such good care of their ramp patches,” says Knaub, “and their ramps are always huge and beautiful.”
Ramps always sing “springtime” to us, and if you’d like to sample Chicago’s signature onion, you won’t find a better way to enjoy them than in Carnivore’s Ramp Cream, which is surprisingly versatile: I’ve had it straight on toast, with eggs, in a beef stir fry, and we plan to have it on pasta. Lots of possibilities.
If Ramp Cream sounds good to you, I’d suggest stopping by Carnivore soon, because when it’s gone, that’s it until next year. And if you come up with a new use for it, let Brad know; he just tried it in a duck egg carbonara that he reports was “really, really good.”