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).