As the temperature in the Valley surpassed 90 not too long ago and was a good 20 degrees hotter in the kitchen, chef Enx Dadulas, looking as cool as a community cucumber, sported a slight glint in his squint as he stated with a nod and TV-game-show-answer-certainty: “Gazpacho!” His expression was mischievous, reminding me somehow of the kid who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar in some long-ago sitcom. Yet his grab was more for the bounty; whatever homegrown produce he would use to produce this cool and revitalizing summer soup that epitomizes “garden fresh.”
Summer in the Merrimack Valley is the mother lode. Of all those inspired by a blazing sun — from wiggly kids anticipating the pool to fishermen who wake a bit earlier and step with extra purpose — the chefs of New England begin to stir with an excitement that accompanies the beginning of the local harvest. With ripening anticipation, many chefs welcome the first herbs from the garden, local vegetables with wiry roots intact, the insanely sweet and naturally sized berries before giant and juicy, beautifully bruised, luscious and leaky heirloom tomatoes.
Chefs and restaurateurs cultivate seasonality for our menus for a variety of reasons. From ethical pursuit, to the market savvy, to the finger painter at heart, the opportunity to again create and handcraft with the most fresh, most available, is at its height simultaneously with the sun. With a sunny change in perspective, we welcome new-again local ingredients that inspire fresh imaginings, pairings and creations.
The purest among us know that serving native grown is simply and wholly better. They embrace the notion with devotion that “local” is better for the community, for mankind and for our collective health. Green is green. They may cultivate on their own property, visit local farmers markets regularly, purchase locally raised poultry and meat despite federal restrictions that make doing so most often cost prohibitive. They love herbs and mushrooms, and may make fresh mozzarella from the milk they have personally squeezed directly from the teat. They pickle, they preserve, they often cure, they can … and they do! And when we meet one of them we may listen, enraptured and perhaps with a hint of jealousy that we can only imagine such passion.
From a quality perspective, there is no doubt that corn picked that very morning at your most neighboring farm stand tastes better than any trucked in from afar. It’s a sugar thing, according to farmer buddy Tom Smith of Smith Farm in Hudson, N.H.
From a sheer business perspective, both economics and marketing initiatives inspire many to focus upon seasonality, as supply and demand sprout opportunities in abundance: of lettuces or peaches, peas and mint, tomatoes and basil, red peppers and purple potatoes! Likewise, foods defined as “seasonal,” “local,” “green,” “organic,” “farm raised” and “sustainable” are conceptually cooler than ever before.
And lest we forget the fun factor, the No. 1 reason a good many of us choose to actually do this for a living, that there are those who were simply raised up in kitchens to see the use of seasonal ingredients bursting with color and texture and sweetness much the way they once may have viewed finger paints. In New England, to just say the words “fiddleheads this evening” as we ramped up for ramps, to re-welcome wild East Coast halibut and Moonstone Oysters, and to later be the creator of a stellar and sassy salsa using locally grown habanero peppers is … hot! Cleaning the dirt off of the carrots and potatoes, rather than cutting open the bags they were shipped in … grabbing the biggest bunch of freshly picked basil off a hand hewed barn shelf and wondering how you will use all of it as the farmer gazes upward, as though the price is posted on the sunbeam-leaking roof, and then suggests: “Two dollars” … I mean, it’s so down to earth you can feel it!
So, as Valley chefs favor favas or passionately purée peaches, create a sweet corn compote for a spicy, slow-smoked pork shoulder, or pair pears with piquant jalapeños, and as we watch with amusement while fresh blueberries bob in our summer wheat beer, as rainbow beets adorn striped bass, and salaciously sticky and sugary fresh strawberry syrup flavors the mojito of the month, I ask you: Is this fun, or what!!!
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, own Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, MA. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories that he will share with us regularly.