Top Chefs Like It Local 

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A few of Flavor’s favorite Texan things: Llano Estacado Texas Signature Red, Pure Luck goat cheese, Fain’s honey, Cherith Valley Gardens Pickled Okra, Oak Hill Farms spinach, and locally grown broccoli, thyme, and heirloom tomatoes — all available at Whole Foods or Central Market.
 

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: I have sinned by allowing myself to be seduced by strawberries not in season. But they looked so good — and the price was a dollar less per pint than it had been. (Though it was still about a dollar more than it will be in two months or so when the Poteet product kicks in.) The ones from Florida were actually pretty good despite their energy-inefficient thousand-mile journey; those from Mexico quickly developed a reproachful bloom of mold. I have been chastened and will now wait until spring.

The notion of eating closer to home (and by this I don’t mean preferring the corner pizza parlor to one across town) has been gaining currency all over the country of late, fueled in part by E. coli scares in the mass production and marketing of products such as spinach and chicken. But there are, I contend, other reasons besides angry greens and mad cows: over the last decade or two, Americans have been bombarded with new cuisines, new fruits and vegetables, new notions (to us, at least) such as the Mediterranean diet … and what was once obvious to our grandparents is beginning to sink in to a generation raised on nutritionally enhanced food products. Food is not just formulated fuel; it’s about supporting the cycle of local seasons and the farmers and ranchers who live by it, about celebrating the arrival in the market of the first asparagus, about centuries of culture and tradition. And about taste.

Local chefs, attuned both to traditional culinary cultures and the growing sophistication of their eating audience, are among real food’s primary proselytizers. “You don’t have to do anything to food if it’s fresh,” claims La Mansion’s Scott Cohen. “It makes a statement on its own.” Of course, Cohen does do just a few things to his foods, and the results of nine years of working with local purveyors are about to be available to all in a Central Texas cookbook he’s putting the finishing touches on. At Las Canarias, he regularly does seasonal tasting menus, featuring strawberries in April, dewberries in May,  Fredricksburg peaches when the weather has been kind, Love Creek apples in August; even Texas potatoes have come in for a star turn. Currently he’s contemplating a feature on different Texas butters, and Texas cheeses are regular players on the restaurant’s cheese plate. “People appreciate what I do `with local ingredients`,” he says. “It’s the single reason I stay here.”

Yet all is not perfect in what Cohen calls our “playground” of produce. “A true farmers’ market is what we need,” he says, and his claim is repeated by chefs all over town.

“There’s no functional way to buy locally here,” reiterates Andrew Weissman. “Anything I can find, I’ll buy,” he says, and that open-door policy has resulted in Meyer lemons from a local hobby grower, figs from the tree of one of his chefs, snapper brought straight from the coast to Le Rêve and Sandbar. “But until San Antonio has a world-class farmers’ market, we won’t get over the hump.”

Weissman’s idea is to close down part of Pecan Street on a weekend day, to attract a “critical mass” of vendors, and to offer everything from artisanal soaps to fresh produce, honeys and jams, eggs, cheeses … anything as long as it’s “small-batch produced.” He sees this as both a resource for local cooks and a tourist attraction — perhaps starting small, but why not think big? Seattle’s Pike Place Market is a major tourist draw, and the new Embarcadero Market in San Francisco has become a gourmet mecca. Weissman hopes to put together a coalition of local chefs and other food-oriented activists to get the market idea off the ground. “I don’t care where it is,” he says, “as long as it happens.” In the meantime he’ll keep buying his honeycomb from a local bee farmer, his game from Broken Arrow Ranch in Kerrville, his quail from Diamond H Ranch near Bandera — and keep his door open.

A front porch might be all you need if you follow Jason Dady’s lead. Dady, chef-owner of The Lodge and Bin 555, pays a little more for to-the-door deliveries of fresh produce from Chuparrosa Ranch in nearby Sabinal than regular members of the Community Supported Agriculture program do (Biga on the Banks is another local customer). There are four drop-off points in San Antonio for members who have paid $216 a quarter for enough produce to feed a family of four during the March to November growing season, excluding a month-long hiatus during the hottest part of summer. Dady swears by products such as arugula (“The best I’ve ever had”), mustard greens, zucchini, sorrel, spring onions, and more, but the entire list can be found on the website at Goodfoodfarm.com. 

In season, Chuparrosa plans for 8-11 items ready for harvest each week, but there are also eggs from about 750 hens of a variety of breeds — all living exemplary free-range lives in mobile units that expose them to fresh grass on a rotating basis.

Pasture used on a rotating basis is also a key premise of the folks at Shudde Ranch, also near Sabinal, who raise grass-fed Longhorn-cross cattle without pesticides, hormones, or steroids. Information on this beef, said to be “heart healthy,” is available at Shudderanch.homestead.com.

There’s an additional benefit to a CSA program that not even a thriving farmers’ market can provide: You are required (unless you pay more) to contribute some labor as a part of your membership. In so doing, you not only assure that you are getting produce that is as fresh as it can be, but you also know that it hasn’t been transported thousands of miles, waxed, gassed, and otherwise abused. You are getting your hands in the dirt. You are directly sensing the seasons. And, of course, you are getting some healthy exercise. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “Unhappy Meals,” Michael Pollan makes much the same point. “Cook,” he says. “And if you can, plant a garden … the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it.” Participating in someone else’s garden is the next best thing.

Pollan also makes many more salient points in the course of his article, which is basically a diatribe against what he calls Nutritionism, the “science” of extracting individual parts from foods meant to be consumed as a whole product. “Don’t eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he claims in summary.

Local chefs know this. Many home cooks do as well. In addition to the above sources for produce that will allow and encourage just that, many more can be found at the Texas Department of Agriculture’s website, Gotexan.org. If this doesn’t inspire us to get behind a farmers’ market initiative, than we’re all doomed to a life of protein shakes and other suspect supplements. Consider the following recipes for soon-to-be-seasonal produce by Chef Scott Cohen as bait.


Poteet Strawberry Soup

2 pints Poteet strawberries

1 1/2 c sugar

1 1/2 c water

1 sprig spearmint

1 1/2 c heavy cream

Freshly ground nutmeg to taste

1 pinch salt

 

Bring sugar and water to a boil; add chopped strawberries. Cook just until soft. Add mint and seasoning, cool, then puree. Add the cream, strain, and then chill. When serving, pour 1 ounce Champagne over top of soup to spritz. Garnish with mint top and 1 small Poteet strawberry.


 
Oak Hill Farms Heirloom Tomato Pearly Couscous


Yield: 4 portions

1/2 c pearly couscous, dry

1 lb. local Oak Hill Farms Heirloom Tomatoes, assorted

2 t shallots, minced

1 t garlic, minced

2 T opal basil, chiffonade or fine julienne

3 T olive oil (divided use)

1 T Champagne vinegar

Salt and white pepper to taste

 

Cook the pearly couscous in salted boiling water for about 5 minutes. Strain and shock in ice water. Allow all excess water to drain from couscous and toss in 1 T of olive oil. To a hot sauté pan, add 1 T of olive oil, the garlic, and shallots and allow them to sweat. Add heirloom tomatoes and cook till they become hot. Add couscous, opal basil, champagne vinegar, and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and white pepper and serve.


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