Sure, West Coast chefs can find a wide range of local ingredients in winter.
But what’s a mid-Atlantic chef to do when farmers markets close and fields lie fallow?
By Marian Burros • Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
“This is my favorite time to cook,” said Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, “from now until the end of February—all those amazing root vegetables that have so much flavor. I’m happy with turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, carrots. The flavors are so rich and hardy when it’s cold and rainy. Nothing beats a braised dish.”
One of the area’s premier chefs is talking about the same vegetables many people gagged on as children. And he acknowledged it. “When they’re overcooked, they lose all their delicious sweetness. That’s a big part of it. We hated them when we were growing up because moms used to overcook them.”
But slowly Americans have begun to warm to root vegetables. “There’s a lot more acceptance by diners,” said Barton Seaver, an owner and chef of Blue Ridge in Glover Park. “If the chef thinks rutabaga is good enough to put on the menu, [diners] are willing to try it.”
Local Food Doesn’t Hibernate
For those who think local food goes away with the first frost, Armstrong has a message. “There are plenty of things to keep us amused. At the restaurant, 90 percent of our produce in winter is local.”
Across the country, the push is on to serve local ingredients all year round, not only because they taste better and last longer, but also because buying locally may reduce the carbon footprint and is better for the environment. And with all the food safety problems in recent years, people feel more comfortable with ingredients grown nearby on small farms. Local and sustainable have become important buzzwords that appear to have staying power.
Dozens of chefs in the D.C. area, like Armstrong, are confident that, at least until February, there are plenty of choices. In addition to buying at the farmers markets, some of which operate year-round, these chefs have contracts with co-ops like Tuscarora Organic Growers in Pennsylvania and Northern Neck Fruit and Vegetables in Virginia. They also contract with individual farmers who grow to order. The pool from which to choose keeps getting bigger.
“It’s easy here in Washington,” Seaver said. “There are lots of farmers with good distribution networks.”
And not just for produce. Sources of local meats and all kinds of poultry, as well as dairy products, breads, and even dried beans and grains, are becoming more plentiful.
Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania, who sells in the Washington area through the Tuscarora Co-op, said the number of members in the co-op will jump from 28 to 48 next year. “We’ve never had that amount of growth at one time,” he said, “and the number of young people going into farming is even more amazing.”
What they are planting—celery root, salsify, sweet white turnips, scarlet turnips, watermelon radishes, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, microgreens, herbs—expands every season. Now they are using high tunnels, or hoop houses, to grow arugula, different lettuces, and spinach.
Jose Andres is expanding the area’s growing season for tomatoes with a greenhouse on the Eastern Shore. His seven Washington-area restaurants need a year-round supply.
No one is arguing that the tomatoes grown indoors will be as good as field tomatoes in the middle of summer. But, as John Paul Damato, the chef at Jaleo in Bethesda pointed out, “At least they won’t have to come all the way from Mexico.”
Sustainability Is Not Seasonal
Shopping for local produce sounds romantically old-fashioned but requires dedication. It is much more time-consuming than calling up a couple of distributors and having everything delivered. “If I go to four or five markets a week, it adds three hours a day,” said Vicki Reh, the executive chef at Buck’s Fishing and Camping in D.C.’s Upper Northwest. “But I think the produce I get is so beautiful, it’s definitely worth the effort.”
No one at Buck’s will miss the conventional green salad in the dead of winter when they can have fire-roasted peppers dressed with a little balsamic, pickled onions, and Romenesko cauliflower with big chunks of housemade cottage cheese.
Dean Gold, owner with his wife of Dino’s in Cleveland Park, hangs around farmers markets until closing time. Then he buys up whatever is left over at a greatly reduced price. On occasion, he has had to make a choice between his wife riding back to the restaurant in his car and taking the produce. The produce always wins: She takes Metro.
Right now his gelato freezer is filled with 200 to 300 quarts of concentrated summer tomato sauce, ready to heat and spoon on pasta.
A spectacular dish of potatoes that have been sautéed in duck fat and topped with a mascarpone-horseradish sauce and translucently thin slices of spec (smoked prosciutto) made from American Berkshire pigs is satisfying enough to make it a meal. It is definitely a cold-weather dish.
“We have a core group of customers that get what we do,” Gold said. “To them, seasonality is incredibly important because of flavor—and because it’s sustainable. Even our to-go containers are biodegradable.”
An A for Effort
But there are limits: Gold cannot afford local beef. It’s too expensive for his restaurant.
There is concern about the cost of local food. “I’ve heard a lot of this lately,” said Restaurant Eve’s Armstrong, but buying local ingredients saves his restaurant money.
The chef offered an anecdote to prove his point. Not so long ago, he turned the running of Eve over to one of his chefs while he was busy with another project. When he returned, he was upset to find the chef had been buying from conventional suppliers and put a stop to it immediately, returning to his local suppliers.
“If you buy from a conventional supplier, the food is already two weeks old at least,” he said. “It’s lost its sweetness; it has a shorter shelf life. You have to throw things away because they are spoiled. So the waste factor tends to balance the cost. We found that not having to throw anything away dropped our food cost 3 percent.”
For restaurants, there’s also money to be saved if the chef has butchering skills. “It helps if you can buy the whole pig or steer and butcher it yourself,” said Nate Waugman of Addie’s in Rockville. “Every piece of animal that comes to me, I use— making pigs’ heads into scrapple and head cheese.”
When he arrived less than a year ago at Addie’s, part of the local Black Restaurant Group, 20 percent of the ingredients at the restaurant were local. This summer it jumped to between 80 and 90 percent, and he expects to keep 50 percent of his produce local this winter.
Not every chef wants to go to this much trouble, Waugman said, “but if people don’t think this way, we won’t have any farmers. It is getting easier because now everyone wants it, because they want bragging rights. I think in 20 years, most cities will be able to buy local.”
Marian Burros was on staff at The New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959, and at one time or other, she worked for the The Washington Post and the late lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC-TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.