In Chicago, spring came at least a month ahead of schedule. We had a wild March, with temperatures soaring past 80 degrees. Daffodils came and went. Even the magnolia trees bloomed. If we have a bad frost now, we'll have problems. But I'm looking at the bright side: The warm weather has been great for canning.
While we never completely stop canning at my restaurants ? Vie in Western Springs, Illinois, and Perennial Virant in Chicago ? in winter months our projects drop off significantly. We stick with pickled root vegetables and preserves made from citrus fruits. I like them all, but eventually I start to miss green things, like asparagus and ramps.
Especially ramps. Chefs go nuts for these wild onions, present company included. Ramps are the first indication that there is life after winter. On forest floors, they are the first green shoots to pop out of the dead leaves and dirt. News of the first crop of ramps used to travel by word of mouth. Now it's gone digital. I'll get a photo of ramps from Tim Burton of Maplewood Farm in Medora, Indiana, as soon as he finds them in his woods. It's kind of crazy, actually, thinking about farmers with smart phones in the woods, in the field, wherever. They're taking pictures of produce and texting them to chefs. When I get a text about ramps, it's time to get going.
My mom used to keep all her canning stuff in the basement. When she would start canning — usually not until the summer — she'd go down and find the pot, the canning tongs, the jars, lids, and rims. Most canners have a place where these supplies live in the winter. If you haven't been canning in a while, locating the necessary equipment is the first major hurdle. After that, it's about stretching your canning muscles, toughening up the tips of your fingers to handle the heat, and getting back into the rhythm. Since the canning season starts slowly, it's like spring training. Practicing now means that by summer, when markets are flooded with tomatoes (and everything else), we can tackle big-league projects.
For now, I'm still focused on the ramps. We pickle them simply in vinegar, water, sugar, and spices. We also ferment a big batch for ramp sauerkraut, a true treat. I serve them at brunch with grit cakes, shrimp, and a spicy tomato sauce. It's a take on shrimp and grits of sorts. And it's delicious. It's hard for me to get tired of ramps, but soon we'll be moving on to the next preserving project. I'm hoping rhubarb is next up at bat.