Cooking Straight from the Farm
The first time I broke my rules was on a first date. As a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and an ex-line cook at a busy, New York Times-starred Manhattan restaurant, I knew two things with certainty: The phrase, “Yes, Chef,” and that if you didn’t follow the rules, your food would be a disaster. I had collected dozens of palm-sized notebooks, peppered with different cooking times and temperatures and techniques, but all relaying the same urgency: Get it right. Don’t mess it up.
So when I found myself in the chaotic but homey kitchen of an old farmhouse, on a date with an enigmatic and handsome farmer named Ian and a recipe for Bolognese sauce and no celery, I panicked. We had canned tomatoes, ground beef, onions, and carrots; even rosemary, all grown and produced right there on the farm. But we didn’t have celery. “It doesn’t last through the long winter months,” explained Ian. And furthermore, he said, it was March; we were lucky to have the carrots and onions. I asked what he wanted to do. Should we choose a different recipe? Make something else? He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Or we could just make it without the celery.”
Whether you’re a part of a CSA, visit the farmers’ market regularly, or just stop by the occasional roadside farm stand, you probably understand the importance and allure of eating seasonally. This more-conscious, thoughtful style of consumerism is intuitive once you let go of big-box supermarkets; if you buy from local producers and growers, the “seasonality thing” will follow. But cooking with straight-from-the-farm food can be a little tricky, so it helps to keep a few guidelines (let’s not call them rules) in mind.
1. Learn and Master Cooking Techniques
This is the most empowering thing a cook can do. Knowing the basic techniques for braising, roasting, sautéing, and frying opens you to a world of possibility and gives you some insight into what’s really important and what’s not. Let’s consider that Bolognese. To make a decent one, you’ve got to coax a little love out of the aromatics (that’s a fancy word for “veggies and herbs”) before adding the big guys: ground beef and tomatoes. What’s important is that you slowly cook the aromatics in oil, softening them and rendering them fragrant. Do that well with a couple of carrots, onions, and rosemary, and you don’t need the celery.
Want a roasted chicken? Knowing how to infuse it with flavor (stuff the cavity) and get the skin crispy (let the bird sit, uncovered, in the fridge overnight to dry out) will take you far. You can riff on the flavors and side-dishes with what’s available in your CSA or market.
2. Be Inspired By Your Appetite, Not Constrained By It
I learned to cook by listening to what my stomach said when it rumbled, and acquiring a recipe that satisfied the desire. If I wanted an asparagus tart with goat cheese and pink peppercorns, I purchased the ingredients to make one — even if asparagus wasn’t in season. Even if the stalks had been flown from Mexico and treated with pesticides. A seasonal and farm-driven kitchen isn’t so frivolous or impulsive, but it needn’t be restrictive or dreary, either.
Let your imagination run wild the next time you’re shopping at the market or opening your CSA box and reach for the first vegetable that really speaks to you. Maybe the escarole, bitter and bracing, is perfect. Go with that. Research ways to cook escarole, or — better yet — ask your farmer how he or she likes to prepare it. If it’s the sweet, crunchy carrots, go with that. Let your appetite give directional suggestions. Just don’t let it drive the bus.
3. Don’t Overthink It
It’s near-impossible to eat perfectly in season all the time. Even farmers get tempted by tender greens in February, or a package of M&Ms that somehow found its way into the kitchen. Cooking with the seasons is a process, and an imperfect one at that. But there’s beauty in that imperfection, because with each mistake and misstep is an opportunity to learn and become a better cook.
The first time you cook with a new or unfamiliar vegetable may be intimidating. Hey, if anyone knows the trauma of kitchen experiments gone wrong, it’s me. But you’ll never know you love the almost-juicy freshness of a kohlrabi bulb unless you are brave enough to try it. You’ll never know that what makes a Bolognese so satisfying is the act of cooking — and sharing — it with someone special. Allow yourself to try something new, and you may just find you don’t even miss the celery at all.