Buffing out some bright spots in the kitchen can lift a tired menu. Ingredients are always going in and out of season. Capitalize on that!
The Spring season is an exciting time in and around the kitchen. The little glimpses of green, the arrival of less hearty vegetables, and the departure from root vegetables are excuses alone to get back into the kitchen.
Spring is as good of a time as any to evaluate your menu. Any time is a good time to evaluate your menu, right? Let’s not do a full-on menu engineering project right now, but take a look at the bottom performers. What dishes aren’t moving? Why? How can you kick-start sales with a few tweaks? A little social media mojo, perhaps, and a flourish across the menu may give a righteous lift. Spring is about new beginnings. Differentiate your menu with some seasonal ingredients. Go in your own way and find your own way out.
Despite what appears to be year-round growing, strawberries actually have a season. For many parts of the country, look for local, flavorful berries in late April and into May. Strawberries come from the big rig distributors in January, too. But buying in season means better quality and equitable pricing, keeping in mind produce is one of the few commodities that has an indirect relationship with the price; quality is up when prices are down. Take advantage of both elements. Dot in-season strawberries in salads, across desserts, and scaled into breakfast breads.
Spring in the Sea?
Seasonal fish really is a thing. Pay attention to sustainability and seasonality. Do the right thing; customers are watching. What is doing well to add color to your spring menu revisions?
Oysters will wane as the waters warm, but they are plump and reasonably priced along with briny clams from Long Island, for instance. Bluefish and rockfish/striped bass are doing their thing right about now. Crabs are also becoming an option along the Mid-Atlantic. Seasonal salmon is still a bit off for the Alaskan harvest, so take a look at some seafood that is different from other times of the year - and take advantage of strategic pricing. Arctic Char is popping up on menus but has a tight season somewhere in the middle of the summer. Look to sustainably farmed seafood options to fill the gap.
Greens, shoots, and sprouts
Just after the coffee, spring peas are a reason for getting up in the morning. A short growing season, English peas are ingredient stars with minimal fuss. This is one of those times when you want the flavor of the vegetable to outweigh the creativity of the chef. A quick blanch, sauté, or steaming of just-shelled English peas is like standing on a rooftop shouting that warmer days have arrived.
Ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and nettles make up soft spots in cooks’ underbellies. “One of the key edibles for a midwest spring,” says Michael Tsonton, chef at Chicago’s Ravinia music festival, excited about nettles.
In the Pacific Northwest, pop-up Chef Sebastian Carosi is amped about the growing season coming out of hibernation.
“Around these parts, we are just starting to enjoy the shoots, tips and spring things that come with the end of winter. We are harvesting licorice fern root, grape hyacinth, nettles, magnolia buds, and blossoms, [and] truffles,” says Carosi.
Why not blend spring greens and the pickling/fermenting trend wave?
“We are also picking young dandelion, chickweed, dead nettle, wild field mustard and plantain leaves that we turn into wild greens’ kimchi with a slight ferment,” adds Carosi.
Look at Lamb
Lamb is a great option to pump up the flavor. Lamb works in tacos, meatballs, burgers, and more.
Spring lamb is symbolic in holiday celebrations and, fundamentally, a glowing point on a redecorated menu. Depending on where your lamb originates, pricing on imported, frozen product can be effective to boost margins.
Soon enough sweat will run down your chin and the chore of getting through summer will be a reality. For now, look for the little garden treasures that are still covered in the chill of the morning. Pluck with care, waste some time, see things from a better side. Your customers will appreciate the extra attention. And keep the inquisitive cooks reeling with field baskets of new toys.
Want more tips for Chef Jim Berman? Listen to this recent episode of Chef AF where he sits down with Chef Hari Cameron, a semi-finalist for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef Of The Year” award in 2013, and they chat about the reality of cooking with the seasons, best chef practices, and why local-only isn’t going to work.