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Onions, or how Chicago got its name

Allium tricoccum growing in its natural woodland environment. Hardyplants at English Wikipedia. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Hardyplants at English Wikipedia.

Spring weather is nearly here, and with it comes a brief window of time where I and some others in the know will harvest ramps, or wild onions.

It's incredible how much history there is for onions as a family. Taxonomists estimate onions originally came from central Asia or around Iran and Pakistan. Their use as food started before the invention of writing or farming, according to onions-usa.org.

Ramps are only one variety of onion, a wild variety, that is in high demand in certain regions. The leaves and bulbs are incredibly potent-smelling, combining both garlic and onion qualities. A friend once compared the smell to feces (I disagree wholeheartedly), but mysteriously, the flavor is rather mild when cooked.

The odor is, as a matter of fact, legendary, as in there are stories about the smell. Depending on the historian consulted, the city of Chicago was named after either the wild ramp or wild nodding onion. The word was adapted from the Native American word "Shikaakwa," which either referred to one or the other variety of wild onion growing thick near Lake Michigan, where the smell was almost oppressive, according to Wikipedia. Paul Harvey had an episode where he explains that the name meant "skunk grass."

The odor of the wild ramp is so potent that Wikipedia says the Richwood News Leader editor and co-owner, Jim Comstock, once added the juice to the ink in his newspaper as a practical joke. Imagine reading this very column from a newspaper bearing some of the most intense, rank onion odor you can imagine.

Ramps aren't incredibly common around these parts; and where they are common, they are at risk of over harvest. There are many places they are protected against harvest because of near extinction. The seeds aren't incredibly viable; they are picky and they take a long time to grow into a mature plant.

The best bet is to harvest leaves or to use the one-third rule where you only harvest one-third of the plants you find and do not return to the same stand twice in one year. Consider hunting a different stand the next year too.

They are among the first wild edibles to come out in the spring and as such, they have historically been an important food source. Three or more months without green vegetables can mean malnutrition, and without a means of preservation, you can bet people were at regular risk of malnutrition during the winter.

Recipes using ramps can often substitute other varieties of onion. Most recipes can substitute spring onions. Leeks, unraveled, can be substituted for the green leaves in situations where they don't need to be chopped. If the ramps are chopped up, you can really use almost any kind of onion.

Wild Ramp Salt

From magicalchildhood.com

  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • Onion leaves, enough to make 2 tablespoons when dried and ground

Start by drying the green onion leaves until crisp. This can be done in a dehydrator or in a gas oven with just the pilot on and door open or even on a rack in a car on a sunny day.

Once dried, grind the leaves in a blender, spice grinder or coffee grinder to a fairly fine consistency and mix with salt. If using coarse salt, grind the coarse salt with the onions. Watch it closely to ensure you don't powder the ingredients too much. Make sure to shake or stir before use.

Grilled Ramps and Asparagus

  • 4-5 thin, tender asparagus spears per person
  • 3-4 ramp bulbs with stems as long as the asparagus
  • 2 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
  • Pinch red pepper (optional)
  • Dash soy sauce

Heat your grill.

Mix the soy sauce, oil, hoisin and red pepper and use this to coat your asparagus and onions. If you have sauce left over, you can reserve it, but find some way to heat it.

Over a high heat, place your vegetables onto the grill surface and allow to grill 2-3 minutes, turning once part way through before removing and serving immediately.

If you kept your sauce, you can drizzle or brush it over the vegetables for added taste, but don't overdo it.

Ramp Chimichurri

From acouplecooks.com

  • 1 bunch ramp greens (approximately 14 leaves)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup salt
  • 1/3 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Chimichurri is traditionally served with steak or fish, but acouplecooks.com recommends it with roasted vegetables, eggs and sandwiches as well.