Raaaaaaaaammmmps! Each April, after a long winter hibernation, Chicago chefs and foodies rub their eyes in unison and let out a raspy call for the first flavors of spring. And no cry is louder than that for ramps, America’s favorite spring onion.
There’s a reason wild ramps command a cult-like obsession. They’re sweet with a mild, garlicky punch, enjoyed charred, sautéed or pureed into soups. For a few weeks each year they’re everywhere until poof, they’re gone.
Ramps are a chic choice for spring, but they don’t corner the market on first-of-season flavor. Here are some other items that Chicago’s food experts say shouldn’t be missed.
Chef Paul Virant of Perennial Virant says greens pique his interest this time of year – particularly garlic mustard, which combines two popular, versatile flavors that restaurants love. The small-leafed, invasive plant grows throughout Chicago and offers a pungent garlic flavor. Virant has been known to harvest it from his neighbors’ yards (with permission) before making it the base of a pesto, salsa verde or chimichurri sauce.
Virant also has a fondness for cattail shoots – cleaned and harvested before the fuzzy buds emerge. They’re a rare find on Chicago menus, but offer a surprising “sweet cucumber taste.”
At The Publican, Chef Cosmo Gross works with some of the best purveyors in the country to source amazing produce. He says organic baby fava beans from California have been an incredible find.
The beans are so young and tender this time of year they can be roasted whole in the pod. Today, you’ll find those fava beans ground with chickpeas in Publican’s falafel, topped with a radish and fava bean salad.
Finally, for those cooking at home, Lincoln Park’s Green City Market offers a great entry point to fresh, seasonal flavors. The market’s director of operations, Kathleen Williams, says April and May are full of excitement for new produce like asparagus, morel mushrooms and radishes, which “are looking particularly amazing this year.”
One of the market’s more innovative finds: corn shoots (pictured at top), offered by Nichols Farm and Orchard. The shoots come from corn kernels that are planted and allowed to sprout. The slender, leafy shoots resemble the weight and texture of microgreens, but their flavor is much more unique.
“They taste just like the sweetest ear of corn,” Williams said. “They would be awesome on an asparagus salad or in a simple spring risotto with some freshly grated cheese.”