From the Kitchen - Chef and the Farmer

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Creating a Seasonal Menu in the Dead of Winter

Creating a Seasonal Menu in the Dead of Winter

At Chef & the Farmer we serve a seasonal menu created by products primarily sourced from the Southeast. We do this year round, and January through March we have to get creative.

I am not claiming that 100% of what we serve is local and seasonal. We use flour and sugar from a giant food purveyor, a few of our proteins are from elsewhere and we have  yet to be able to source enough onions, garlic and potatoes to keep the restaurant outfitted by local sources year round. However for the most part whether it’s July or February, what you eat here is representative of what’s reared, plucked or cultivated in the Southeast. That’s my disclaimer. Back to the point.

I think a lot of chefs in this region, myself included, are nearly drunk May through October by the bounty and diversity of local, green juicy stuff.  The variety is almost too much for me and I am going to go out on a limb and say that creating a diverse, colorful menu in the dead of winter is more fun and certainly more gratifying for me as a chef than doing the same thing during the summer. It takes calculation and resourcefulness, two things I enjoy most about cooking professionally.

Our winter menu is something we plan for all year long. This past summer we made large amounts of freezer jam, numerous pickles and preserved tomatoes in every minute of spare time. I bought and froze over 1500 pounds of blueberries, blackberries, butterbeans, peas and corn making for a very cramped walk-in freezer. Each year we hold these ingredients until December as North Carolina’s agreeable Autumn offers up plenty of other ingredients with which to work.

In November, I troll Anson Mills website looking for a few inspiring grains or legumes to liven up January, February and March. This year, in addition to our Anson Mills staples, we are showcasing Blue Corn Grits, Hominy, Carolina Rice Grits and Sea Island Red Peas prominently in dishes. These grains are available all year, but we wait until January to use them, kind of like a squirrel uncovering his buried nuts in winter (I think that’s what squirrels do).

Then there are cold weather crops. Yes, there is such a thing. For us, winter squash are long gone, but there is still a supply of sweet potatoes, collards, kale, hearty asian greens, turnips, rutabagas and Brussels Sprouts from Brother’s Farm, Putnam Family Farm and Tull Hill Farm.

After the most recent cold snap I was certain we had seen the end of Brussels Sprouts, but to my surprise, Steve Putnam promised 60lbs more. It’s hard to imagine a person getting more jazzed over Brussels sprouts than I did last week. My excitement was actually a little embarrassing, but here in Kinston, it’s the small things.

Part of creating a successful dead of winter menu that is at once local and varied is to show the versatility of a given ingredient, so at Chef and the Farmer, collards have many faces. We cream them, puree them into chowder, smoke them, pickle them, fry them, stuff them into raviolis, use them as wrappers and serve them raw. The idea is not to do all these preparations at once. This is not Chef and the Collard. No customer should sense we as a kitchen are trying to be resourceful, utilizing one ingredient in as many ways as possible. Instead we rotate these techniques throughout the course of a season so the ingredients’ presentation is always fresh and seemingly new. That’s the goal.

Fortunately for us, winter is not all about dried grains, roots and hearty greens. We rely pretty heavily on Warren Brother’s, of Brother’s farm, small greenhouse to help keep things bright and tender. All season long Warren brings us beautiful head lettuces and microgreens that provide splashes of color and contrasts in texture for dishes that could otherwise show up drab or one note.

Another pivotal ingredient in our dead of winter menu, Florida Citrus, is actually my favorite part of the season. Once a month, from November to March, the Citrus Unlimited truck parks on Vernon Avenue in Kinston and sells the best Ruby Red grapefruit, Navel oranges, tangelos and Honey Bell tangerines I’ve ever had. I love fruit, but I really love citrus, so much so that I don’t participate in it’s prep at the restaurant because I have made myself sick one too many times on the left over juice from discarded citrus membranes.

Here at Chef and the Farmer we do the obvious, highlighting the fruit in salads and desserts. But where the ingredient really shines is when used to balance heavy, less elegant items. A little orange juice squirted into a caramelized turnip soup levitates the whole thing and makes your palate crave more.  Drop a few braised pork and orange zest meatballs into the mix and I’ve been told even kids call it the best potato soup ever (although none in my family).

Obviously creating and maintaining an interesting and above all delicious winter menu is more complicated than boiling and pureeing a bunch of root vegetables, sliding them under a hunk of beef, scattering a few micro pea shoots overtop and finishing the whole thing with orange zest. Yes it is more complex than that, but you get the idea. Even the dead of winter offers an abundance of food to enjoy and with a little planning and creative manipulation, the season can seem as varied as summer (almost).

When “Old Timey” is Hip Again- Making Collard Kraut

When “Old Timey” is Hip Again- Making Collard Kraut

Ben and I live in the tiny rural community of Pleasant Hill, North Carolina, which sits on the edge of Jones County, the least populated county in the state. In this area there are tobacco farms, volunteer fire departments, big gardens and plenty of old-timers canning, pickling and preserving.

“Putting up” of late has become hip. Not to generalize, but for the most part people under the age of 50 preserve jams laced with chilies and vinegars or can pickles spiked with unlikely spices. We practice some of this trendy preservation here at Chef and the Farmer, and among some of the preserves we made this year were strawberry malbec jam and star anise okra pickles. Still most of the produce preservation done in this area is decidedly old-school. And as luck and constant pestering would have it, last week I got to participate in some old-fashioned “putting up.”
Our neighbors, the Mills, have lived on Pleasant Hill Road for 4 generations. They own Pleasant Hill grocery, a country store with a grill serving biscuits my family has enjoyed for as long as I can remember. Each year in November the Mills gather at “Aunt Pat’s” to make collard kraut. I was first introduced to this preserve 4 years ago shortly after moving back here from NYC. It’s much like sour kraut, but made with collards and not quite as pungent. Oddly enough I remember eating it piled on a crostini over creamed collards (Weird).  However strange my concoction, I was so taken by the flavor and texture of the kraut, I asked permission to sit in on the next kraut session.

Fast forward to the week before Thanksgiving 2010, just down the road from my own home, the Mills brothers, Pete, Van, Fred and a first cousin, Charles (aka Pee Wee) were already working in a shed out back. It was obvious this was not their first rodeo as they worked in smooth assembly with tools that had clearly been around the block a few times. First the collards were taken from a small pick-up load just outside the shed where Pete made quick work of trimming the root end from each bunch. Next Fred and Charles washed each collard bunch in two changes of water before dropping the bundles into a heavy-duty 50 gallon trash can. Once in the can, Van pounded the leaves down with a tool similar to the one Bam Bam carried around on the Flinstones, a very cool, authentic looking device capable of fetching big money at any roadside antique market. This action both served to pack down the leaves and to bruise them a little so as to speed along the fermentation. Intermittently the men sprinkled salt between the layers of leaves and finally filled the 50 gallon bin with water and weighed the whole thing down with smooth blocks of oak. Only oak will do as pine, hickory or other types of wood will impart an off flavor to the Kraut.

Throughout the whole process the Mills men waxed on about the superstitions surrounding this dying art. First off, for proper kraut one must start with collards that have been subjected to a good frost. The collards the Mills use come from seed that has been in the family for over a hundred years, and the water they use to both wash the collards and fill the bin is well water from the family farm. But probably the most widespread belief is one concerning the proper time for making Kraut. With respect to the Farmer’s Almanac, Kraut should never be made in the bowels. What in the hell you might ask does that mean? Well it all has to do with the moon, the month and the parts of the body associated with each moon phase. Kraut made during the phase of the moon below the belt and above the feet will turn rancid and rot. I can personally vouch that this is no joke. After first tasting collard kraut I haphazardly tried to make it here at the restaurant. The outcome was so stinky and rank, it took three guys to dispose of the evidence, and we eventually had to throw away the container. I had made it in the bowels.
The final step with the Mills that day was to cover the bin with a towel to keep out insects and other country stuff leaving the collards, the salt and the well water to do its fermentation magic over the course of about three weeks. At that point the Mills will have preserved collards to enjoy and share all through the winter.

This is what “putting up” was originally about, having something to eat when the ground is too cold to produce, storing up in times of plenty in preparation for periods of lean. Luckily there are a few people still observing these rituals even though the Piggly Wiggly sells collards year round. Maybe the Mills brothers will not be the last generation to make Kraut in November on Pleasant Hill Road.

If it Ain’t Broke, but could be better, Fix it.

At least once a week, customers stop me in the dining room to tell me how much they love our website. They love the opening photos, the flash sequence, the representation of Eastern Carolina. I have always replied with “Thank you. We’re quite proud of it too.” Recently though, my answer has sounded something like “Thanks. I’m happy you liked it. Check back in a month or so. It will be totally different.”

This response is almost always met with confused disapproval. Why would we change something our customers applaud? Why on earth would we take those dern fried oysters off the menu when they are our number one seller? Why would we ever sell any type of chicken other than Blueberry BBQ? Why!

Because Ben and I are young, dumb and constantly trying to improve our restaurant. Yes, Ben and I loved the opening sequence from our old site. Those photos of tobacco barns and our house in the distance were awesome. But beyond the opening, and let’s be honest, that’s what everyone loved, our old site just wasn’t that functional. Case in point. We change our menu here nearly everyday. To change it on our website, we had to contact our site manager in New York, send him a PDF of the menu, then have him post it He happens to be a friend, so to us it always felt like we were imposing. As a result our menu that changed every day in reality, changed 4 times a year in cyberspace.

Our new site is much more interactive and I’m psyched. Thanks to Harris Damashek and Tommy Giglio from Damashek Consulting for creating this new site and being patient with Ben and myself. I cringe when I think about what obnoxious clients we were. Everyone has their moments.

FARM FOCUS: Brother’s Farm

Every so often you come across someone who just owns what they do. Warren Brothers, of Brother’s Farm, is one of those people. He was born to farm. He loves it, he has a relaxed knack for it and we, here at Chef and the Farmer, adore his produce and flowers.

Brother’s Farm, in LaGrange, NC, sits on what was once, Warren’s father’s 3-hole golf course. At first glance this 3 acre space appears an everyday ENC farm. But look a little closer and you’ll find a cornucopia of vegetable varieties rarely seen east of Raleigh. From Hakurei turnips, to Red Russian Kale, Elephant garlic and all types of micro greens, Warren makes it his priority to provide variety and quality in his offerings.

When restaurants work directly with farmers, variety is important, but what proves even more crucial is consistency. Brother’s Farm has been able to supply Chef and the Farmer with organic lettuce year-round. Whether from the field, the hoophouse or the greenhouse, Warren harvests an average of 12lbs of mixed lettuce every week. From there, the lettuce takes a dip in one of three old-fashioned bathtubs resting on cinder blocks outside the Brother’s family barn. Finally, before delivery, the lettuce spends a minute or two in the spin cycle of a washing machine. Warren says washing lettuce is tricky, and this method, while a little out of the box, does the trick without damaging the goods.

As a restaurant, working with Brother’s farm for more than three years proves more rewarding season after season. It is a reciprocal relationship where we, as a restaurant, are quick on our feet adjusting the menu daily in order to best highlight what’s available locally, from farms like Warren’s. In return, Brother’s Farm and many other local purveyors, strive to grow the most beautiful and healthful stuff available. It’s that close producer/consumer relationship that makes the farm to fork movement both wonderful and delicious!

To purchase Brother’s Farm produce or cut flowers please call 252-559-5825. And with his Kale, or any other, try this easy recipe with pasta or spread it onto grilled bread.

Kale and Lemon Pesto

3 cups steamed Kale (large ribs removed)

Zest of 2 lemons

½ cup pine nuts (toasted)

½  cup parmigianno reggiano

1 Tbsp. honey

¼ cup roasted garlic

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine first 7 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process, while slowly drizzling in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add more olive oil if you wish.