Winter Farm Fresh 2011

by Kathleen Culliton
Antoinette Bruno
December 2010

It’s five a.m. in New York City on a Saturday morning and only a weary few are braving the cold and dark of Union Square Park. A pair of homeless guys curl up for the night on park benches, some hipsters make a bee line for the L train to Williamsburg, and a handful of chefs who know what’s up are coming to the greenmarket.

Bundled up beyond recognition, it isn’t uncommon to find chefs from the best restaurants in the city picking through the bounty before most New Yorkers have gotten around to hitting the snooze button. They come early in the morning to ensure they get the best, and they come with purpose. Here farmers from all over the tri-state area get together and set up camp for a full day of selling. The prices are sometimes higher and the climate definitely colder, yet for the handful of chefs who make the trip, the produce is well worth the discomfort. There will be no sacrificing standards to winter's frost.

Across the country chefs are making winter work for them, and their pilgrimage begins daily with a trip to the local farmers for the best produce and inspiration. Here’s just a smattering of what they may find tomorrow morning.

chestnutsChestnuts

There’s good reason that the rich aroma of roasting chestnuts signifies the holidays for Nat King Cole (and so the rest of us): December is the prime month for fresh chestnuts. Whether roasting them in the oven or on an open fire, grinding them to make chestnut flour for holiday cookies, or pairing marrons glacés with cheese and wine, these meaty nuts are a sweet staple of holiday cuisine.

When selecting chestnuts, trust your eyes. If the chestnuts look dim or mottled they may have mold. They should have a healthy glow and a beautiful brown shine. Next, trust your ears. Shake the shell and if you hear a rattling sound just walk away—that nut is past its prime. Even the freshest of chestnuts dry out easily, so keep them in a cool, dry place, free of drafts, and use within a week or freeze them. In 2008 Chicago Rising Star Chef Tim Dahl's recipe for Chestnut Financier he uses every imaginable application for the chestnut—chestnut flour appears in the financier, classically roasted chestnuts are puréed and seasoned with an Italian delicacy, chestnut honey.

Recipe: Smoked Chestnut Purée, Camembert Cheese, Chestnut Financier, Valrhona Manjari Sorbet, Black Truffle, and Sorrel from Chef Tim Dahl of Nostrano – Madison, WI

 

 

GrapefruitGrapefruit

It doesn’t take much to make grapefruit palatable in the summer when most people inherently crave sweet, acidic foods. But grapefruit isn’t a summer fruit; the ruby-reds grown on American soil peak in the depths of winter. Introducing this ingredient into a winter dish takes a light touch and proper know-how.

Pick out grapefruits heavy for their size; this indicates water-laden (a.k.a. juicy) flesh. It’s fine for the skin to look a little beat up, but soft brown spots are a no-no. Store them at room temperature if you are planning on using them within the week (their skins will protect them). If you want to keep grapefruits beyond a week, they’ll survive the walk-in for about two or three weeks.

The bitter acidity of grapefruit makes a perfect palate cleanser for delicate dishes such as Chef Logan Cox’s Crudo of Hamachi. The pairing may be done a lot— but not like Chef Cox does it. The chef meticulously divides the grapefruit not by segment, but by cell. Marinated in olive oil, the fruit pops in the mouth with a burst of flavor that achieves perfect balance of acid to base.

Recipe: Crudo of Hamachi, Grapefruit Cells, Broccoli Juice, Freshly Grated Housemade Bottarga, and Caper Foam from Chef Logan Cox of New Heights Restaurant - Washington, DC

 

 

KaleKale

In Northampton, where people grow a lot of their own vegetables, there is a running joke that if you leave your car unlocked when you return to it you will most likely find kale in it. There is so much homegrown kale that giving it away takes more than generosity—it takes stealth! This cousin of cabbage and collards is healthy and almost impossible to kill, making it enormously popular to amateur gardeners and health nuts. Chefs take note of kale for its bold appearance and complex flavor. Kale is usually deep, dark green in color with a bluish tint, but ornamental varieties also come in lavender, red, blue-green, and yellow-green. Kale is best in the winter when cold temperatures increase the sugar content which cuts the bitter taste.

Kale can (and should) be bought fresh. Look for perky leaves and no discoloration. Store in the walk-in for no longer than three days. 2007 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Mihoko Obunai of Repast serves blanched kale with a rich miso sauce on her macrobiotic plate that is both nutritious and sumptuous.

Recipe: Macrobiotic Composition: Kale, Quinoa, and Kimpira from Chef Mihoko Obunai of Repast – Atlanta, GA

 

 

SalsifySalsify

Among diners, Salsify is a little bit of an insider's vegetable. Not everyone has heard of it, but those who have know that they're in on a good secret. Salsify is popular in France, Italy, and Russia where it ranks quite high on the chic barometer. Thankfully globalization is doing more than recessing (or depressing, to be blunt) the economy; salsify is slowly making its way into the hearts and menus of American chefs.

Salsify's taste is often compared to that of an oyster, earning it the nickname “the oyster plant”. Care must be taken when cooking, as it can turn to mush very quickly if overcooked. Like kale, salsify also sweetens as the weather grows cold. Select medium-size roots that are smooth and firm. Large roots can be stringy and smaller roots have less meat. Salsify will last 2 weeks wrapped in plastic and stored in the walk-in. Prep salsify by scrubbing with a brush.

Salsify is the perfect pick for a chef like Chef David Féau of The Royce, who made an internationally recognized name for himself at Lutèce by bringing healthy cooking preparations to French haute cuisine. His Salsify Four Ways typifies the Frenchman’s knack for letting the ingredients steal the show.

Recipe: Salsify Four Ways: Steamed, Rolled in Leak Ash, Cajun Spiced, and Salsify-Goat Cheese Purée from Chef David Féau of The Royce – Pasadena, CA

 

 

Sweet PotatoesSweet Potatoes

The sweet potato isn't a glamorous vegetable, but it's certainly versatile. With over 400 kinds of sweet potatoes that cover a spectrum of colors, from white, cream, yellow, orange, pink, or deep purple, there's almost a different variety for everyone. And the sweet potato is also a pretty flexible ingredient—it'll step up to center stage of a dish or easily play backup to other tastes. The yellow sweet potato is the variety that gets the most play, even from the New York Times, but maybe that's just because that blaring color is a pretty difficult to ignore.

These general rules apply to all varieties: choose sweet potatoes that are firm and do not have any cracks, bruises or soft spots. Avoid those that are displayed in the refrigerated section of the produce department since, even though they like winter, they hate cold temperatures (which dampen their taste). Sweet potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place (again, not the walk-in), where they will keep fresh for up to ten days.

While at Ducca, Chef Richard Corbo added white sweet potato to his recipe for Pizzoccheri, a classic Italian dish that calls for the noodle pizzoccheri (a runt in the tagliatelle family) with cubed potatoes, and chard.

Recipe: Pizzoccheri, White Sweet Potato, Chard, Shaved Local Pecorino, Citrus from Chef Richard Corbo of Arrosto – Port Chester, NY