By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor
Farm to table. Farm to fork. The movement to localize the procurement of ingredients for your menu can be an exciting and noble notion. The local farms have names and faces behind them, the types of produce can be one-of-a-kind, and the flavors allow chefs to respect the produce and celebrate the quality. But what about when the temperature starts to drop? What are the options late in the growing season around the country? Is it possible to continue offering “local” throughout the fall?
Seasons Aren’t the Only Thing That Needs to Change
Guests are accustomed to not having seasons thanks to worldwide shipping and the availability of summer crops every day of the year. Restaurateurs and chefs are often hesitant to stop offering certain items just because the local or even somewhat “local” (same side of the country) fields have been turned in anticipation of freezing temperatures or inclement weather. Some late season crops are still producing, but how will an abundance of local squash help when tomatoes are necessary for that best-selling caprese appetizer? Time to get creative and begin savoring the seasons.
Take some time to showcase fall ingredients by putting some work in to understanding flavor profiles. The bold, vegetal, and earthy flavors can be reminiscent of missed summer flavors with the addition of some interesting vinegars or citrus, for instance. Crowd pleasers can be tweaked to account for what is in season now, and dishes calling for nothing but summer produce can be traded out completely for several months. It's okay to make the guests long for that dish that will come back with a bang when the season hits!
Another option to preserve the integrity of a local produce program or nod to the farm-to-table mantra is to find an indoor grower. Increasingly popular, for all the right reasons, indoor farms start to take the weather changes out of the equation. Dave Roeser from Garden Fresh Farms, Inc. based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area explains, “I like to say tomatoes in winter are a factor of four: half the quality at twice the price.” Given this reality, Dave is actively working on growing tasty tomatoes indoors. This is something anyone in charge of procurement has dealt with; tomato case weights fluctuate, sugar gets very low, and color is often terrible in fall and winter months. The option to buy an out of season crop that tastes delicious while supporting a local farm is a victory on many levels.
The lengths that indoor farms like Garden Fresh Farm go to in order to provide grow-season-defying quality is impressive and quite attractive. “Our tag line is 24FRESH, meaning we pick in the morning, get it to the distribution center in the afternoon, and into kitchens in the morning.” This kind of freshness is appreciated year-round, not just when temperatures are hovering around freezing. More farms like this in the right places means increasing the ability to support a large demographic driving the local, farm-to-table movement. “One project in New England will place our farm in an area with 30 million people all within 100 miles of the farm.” A facility near a distribution center that provides service to several states worth of hungry Millennials and others who have the insatiable appetite for local and fresh will help brands continue to offer more during colder months.
Nothing is a Sure Thing
Menu adjustments for restaurants attempting to stay local can often plan on certain fall flavors, though nature makes the final call. Southern California experienced record breaking heat through September and October, and Leo De Santi from San Diego based Moceri Produce says that, “We are not the only ones that have been baking in the sun over the last few months.” Local pumpkins are at a premium in Southern California. Leo alerted his customers to the issue and asked chefs to get orders in as soon as possible to reserve the produce. “Due to the heat waves throughout September, the pumpkin market has gotten very tight. Our normal supplier has lost half his crop to the heat and will be running out sometime next week.” This message went out early in October, and was not welcome news to those who planned on local availability for their pumpkin dishes.
Do Your Groundwork
Learn about fall produce. Try and experiment with fall flavors. Too often, restaurateurs default to a handful of dishes in the fall, and a familiar hard skinned, orange squash is the produce of choice. There is a wealth of fall produce that is begging to be introduced to everyone. Think about the millennial guest who is looking for new flavors and something with a story. Now is the perfect time to educate guests and excite them at the same time. Guests are probably well rehearsed on kale by now, so move on to some interesting meaty mushrooms and showcase them on the side or the star in a meatless dish. Root vegetables in the fall are so satisfying and delicious. Beets should be a no-brainer, but what about the oft-forgotten parsnip?
Roast those root veggies, season and treat them well and the sweetness and subtle layers of flavor emerge. Underrated, but so delicious when you get your hands on quality produce. Fall fruit does quite well going sweet or savory. Consider compotes and relishes that employ supporting ingredients that can aid in wider acceptance of fall flavors. Imagine guests raving about the delicious persimmon-cranberry compote on one of your dishes and walking away saying, “I didn’t know I liked persimmons!” This allows chefs to introduce them in another application should the demographic demand taking smaller steps in certain flavor directions.
Don’t forget to educate the staff. Your attempt to allow for more seasonality on the menu could fall flat if the people selling them haven’t seen the light!