Local Produce – The Chef’s of Summer

I start making regular jaunts to the Farmers Market in late May. The market soothes my impatience after a winter of eating and working with forcibly ripened fruits and vegetables. As soon as the weather starts to warm and the air carries the smell of growing things again. I begin to anticipate summer’s exquisite flavors. In the late spring, as the market gears up, I can find- among other things- wild ramp, morels and the first pencil thin asparagus at the Farmer’s Market. When the tiny sweet strawberries of western Wisconsin arrive. I know we are well on our way to the full-blown bounty of summer.

I find myself prodding and sniffing the countless shapes and sizes of the deep red and golden heirloom tomatoes. Sweet and musty smelling melons strain on my plastic shopping bag like cannonballs. The market air is filled with the aromas of basil, kohlrabi, fennel, gan-lai, baby bok choy, peaches, blackberries and all the substances I, and anyone who cooks (or eats for that matter), has been waitng for.

The Farmer’s Market- not unlike the crowded Marktplatz outside Orchestra Hall during Sommerfest- is a testament to Minnesota’s love of summer and its rich culinary pleasures. Whether I’m enjoying a char-grilled bratwurst savored to the strains of Mozart on the plaza or an elegant meal comprised of all my Farmer’s Market finds, food is the ultimate celebration of summer. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking this way, and I was curious to know to know how other chefs, compatriots in the business, felt about summer and it’s all too short palette of ingredients.

Ken Goff, Executive Chef at The Dakota Bar and Grill.

The Dakota Bar and Grill has long been known for both it’s premiere spot on the Twin Cities jazz scene as well as Ken Goff’s unique locally inspired cuisine. When I asked Ken about the summer foods he looks forward to he gave me an answer in keeping with his unique style. “After the first locally grown chives and sorrel, I look for Fava beans”, he said. I found this to be a curious answer and quite unusual for a Midwestern chef. This lima bean like legume is more commonly associated with Middle Eastern cuisine. Ken looks forward to a local product grown for him by farmer Ulrich Blocher. Fava beans aren’t as starchy tasting as lima’s and surprisingly, they do go well with a good Chianti. Ken uses these fresh fava beans in a Vegetable Chowder. He simmers them, along with sweet corn and smoked trout, to be served alone as a soup or sometimes as a sauce with broiled Walleye.

Jacquelyn Hopkins, Pastry Chef The Saint Paul Hotel

“I know Iced Tea isn’t technically a food, but it is what I immediately think of when you mention summer.” Jacquelyn was raised in the south and her memories of sweating glasses of sweet tea are what summer is all about. It was a right of passage of sorts when at five years old; she was offered her first glass of iced tea to drink with the adults. This memory was incorporated into a tea flavored Ice Cream she created for the high tea service at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. For this, she infused Earl Grey in milk then used this milk to make the confection and served it as a finishing course for the mid afternoon break. As a pastry chef with an inherited sweet tooth she longs for the fruit of summer. Her favorite summer dessert, or as she put it “We sometimes had this as our dinner when I was growing up”, is Summer Pudding, a Southern trifle of cake, custard and fresh picked fruit. Jackie recommends complementing Summer Pudding with a spinach salad for a cool and flavorful supper on a warm summer night.

Lenny Russo, Executive Chef, W.A. Frost

Lenny’s outlook for summer is as expansive as the season is itself. “I grew up as part of a large Italian family with a big garden.” His list of summer treasures reads like a seed catalogue. He did however spend more time talking about heirloom tomatoes than anything else, those homegrown varieties particularly with traceable lineages. The combination of small kitchen space at his restaurant and full tables has forced Lenny to refine his dishes to be quick and composed of no more than three flavors. Because of this, “these flavors must be bold and vibrant”, he said. So he uses organic greens, farmhouse cheese from Love Tree Farms, heirloom tomatoes and sometimes even Periwinkle Roses grown around the garden. Among his favorite summer dishes is a chilled cucumber soup served with a celery seed crème fraiche and fresh dill, part of what he calls his backyard barbecue with a twist.

Lucia Watson, Chef/Owner, Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar

“The flavors of summer are unlike any other season”, said Lucia. She looks forward to the intense flavors of local, especially organic, products as much as any chef I talked to. Her menus always reflect the season. So when it comes to summer, you can truly see her love of the season’s product and demeanor by the selection of dishes she offers. She personally looks forward to the sweet corn of July and August. She told me about finding a small roadside stand near Afton one summer with the best corn she had ever tasted. When she returned to buy a bushel for her restaurant the farmer and the stand had vanished, never to be found again. This urban legend like tale personifies her desires to work with the best available of the season. She uses sweet corn, from more reliable sources, to make a sauce with chives and cream to be served over grilled catfish. Her favorite summer dish is a Gazpacho Salad combining red and yellow bell peppers with cucumber, scallion, tomatoes, avocado and feta cheese dressed with garlic and cumin infused vinaigrette. This dish epitomizes the season with its fresh flavors and vibrant colors. I have enjoyed this dish myself at one of Lucia’s sidewalk tables with some crusty homemade bread while watching the Uptown natives stroll by.

Mark Haugen, Chef/Co-Owner Tejas and Bar Abilene

“There’s nothing like biting into a fresh tomato warm from the garden”, he said. As soon as Mark said this I was instantly transported to a hot summer day as a child in our family’s own garden. Mark grows tomatoes for himself and his family in his own garden at home to relish with the pungent basil planted nearby. But at his restaurants, he looks froward to something a little more exotic to spice up his southwestern flavored menus. For this he has found local producers of tomatillos and heirloom chiles. In fact, some of these hybrid varieties of scotch bonnets and jalapenos come from a gentleman who grows them for competition then sends the plants to the restaurant to be used for both decorations and recipes. I was particularly interested in the way Mark uses my favorite summer vegetable, fresh sweet corn. One dish that really intrigued me was his exquisite hand crafted tamales. These are made by combining masa, ground corn paste, with fresh corn, flavoring it with barbecued pork, wild mushrooms or spicy shrimp then steaming them in a corn husk wrapper.

We all look forward to locally grown produce at the peak of summer for restaurant menus or entertaining at home. Whether its from the Farmer’s Market or a special experience with a roadside stand selling sun drenched produce still warm from the fields. There are no other places I can think of, short of growing it yourself, that will provide the serious cook with the stuff summer memories are made of.

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