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Posts Tagged ‘seasonal’

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Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

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Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?

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Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***

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Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.

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Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.

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Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.

Psht.

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Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

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Peach blueberry pie, Red Bank.

Mid-April. We turn our winter weary selves to the strengthening sun and take deep breaths of the sweet air. The world is yawning, stretching, and growing greener. Another spring.

The predictable sameness of the supermarket isn’t going to cut it this time of year. A farmers market is. Hat, small bills, some cloth shopping bags (French housewives know the stretchy mesh kind are best because they can always fit one more onion), and off you go. Ride that spring momentum.

Like New York City during Fashion Week, the farmers market is a seasonal showcase; specifically, for the local and the just picked. This is what’s in fashion from the earth, right now. Produce sold there is going to be more nutritious, more flavorful, and often cheaper than whatever the supermarket has recently misted with water and glossed with wax.

Young cheese, Red Bank.

This is an opportunity to try stuff you’ve always wanted to, or to try stuff you’ve never even seen before. The blog you’re reading says ‘open your eyes’ at the tippy top for this very reason. If you’ve only ever shopped at supermarkets, going to a farmers market is like entering another galaxy—albeit one right at home—and in the best imaginable way. It’s a way to make your life bigger. Sniff the freshness of lemon verbena now, be dazzled later in the season by the explosion of sweetness in an heirloom tomato. Take in the greens and golds, the deepest, plummiest purples.

One of the best things about farmers markets is of course that they feature farmers. And bakers. And other people who are invested in what they’ve grown or made for you. They’re excited to talk to you about it. Questions are good. (Once a supermarket cashier held up the greens I had put on the conveyor belt and asked me what kind they were. This is not good.) You can talk about butterstick zucchini with the guy who planted it, tended to it, and picked it. This bin of zucchini is his labor of love, not just his job. And the man can give you recipes in his sleep.

Introduce yourself and get his name. After you take the zucchini home and cook it, go back and tell him how much you dug it. Or tell him you fouled the recipe up, if you did. He’ll give you pointers on how to get it right. It’s hard to beat that kind of attention and service.

Local brown and white eggs, Asbury Park.

Collards, Atlantic Highlands.

Ask for a taste. (You can do that there.) Prepare to be surprised. Ask more questions. You’ll find out oddball stuff, like if you add a teaspoon of almond extract to peach pie it will make it celestial. Think about what an almond looks like in its shell and what a peach pit looks like. Pretty similar, right? It’s because peaches (and nectarines, and cherries) and almonds are all cousins. Because of that, they have a natural affinity for each other.

Have you ever bitten into a strawberry that was picked three hours ago? It’s still warm. Chances are it’s also smaller than the ones you’ve seen at the supermarket. Often those are dipped in chocolate—and a good thing, too, because on their own they taste like wet cotton balls. Big strawberries are bred to 1) wow you by their size 2) sit on a shelf for a week. Flavor? Niente.

Taste one that’s small and local. That means it’s bred for flavor, which further means it’s never going to be sold in a supermarket. The farmer grew this variety because he knows he can pick these little guys, pack them in the back of his flatbed and get them into your hands inside a day.

Red cabbage, Asbury Park.

Hot pepper jam, Asbury Park.

If you come across a table behind which stand an elderly woman and her son, and you can’t pronounce their last name, and they make old-style sour rye bread, please buy one.  Ask the woman how long she’s been making bread and why she still does it. She wants to talk about it.

Last summer I met a portly man whose parents taught him to make focaccia and fresh bufala mozzarella, in his hometown of Rome, 50 years ago. I could tell you how good this bread and cheese tasted, but you’ve probably already guessed.

Many of these purveyors are keeping ancient traditions alive. One taste, and both the flavor and the link from past to present will astonish you, bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Heirloom tomatoes, Asbury Park.

Everyday life can make our heads spin. But farmers markets can bring us back down to earth, literally and figuratively. The growers chatting, your neighbors browsing and tasting along with you, the pooches scooting along beside them—all make a farmers market a bustling place. But paradoxically, it can also give us a sense of peace. The handmade, the homegrown, and the people who offer it have the power to soothe the overwrought spirit as well as to make us feel more alive. It can make us want to stretch along with spring itself.

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