Savoring Local Flavors Throughout the Year
People always think chefs eat the best. In movies we’re portrayed as busy in our kitchens whipping up creation after creation, fulfilling our senses of smell, taste and sight. It’s true, we are a creative bunch. And, for the past 20 years, I had a lot of fun coming up with new ways to concoct old favorites for my customers. But unfortunately, for myself and my husband, I don’t look like Katherine Heigel in the movie New Year’s Eve or Catherine Zeta Jones in No Reservations. And I’m not whipping up dish after dish yet somehow avoiding to get a speck of food on my white chef coat (or in the case of Ms. Heigel a lovely lavender version). After cooking for the masses, my home kitchen is a completely different story and it’s probably a lot like yours!
The ingredients may be right in front of us, but the clock doesn’t always work in our favor. As chefs, we’re often so busy creating dishes for other people, we forget about cooking for ourselves. That’s when it’s handy to have a back-up of ingredients that can be used to not only put together a fast meal, but one that’s abundant with as many fresh local flavors as our area has to offer. I call this my “Door County winter larder” … items that can be taken out of my freezer at a moment’s notice when I’m longing for a touch of Door County farm market produce. Late summer and early fall provide professional and amateur chefs alike with a multitude of fresh produce right at our finger tips. You can find a community farm market practically every day of the week packed with local farmers selling their fresh bounty right off the field. Talk about “field to table!” You can’t get any fresher or have more fun.
Our local community markets provide prime sites to find farm-to-table produce that can be used immediately and saved for future use. So, when I look out at that first snow of the season, what could be better than a homemade pizza with oven dried local tomatoes and a fresh local herb pesto made in the early fall then frozen for that perfect winter meal?
The concept of freezing seasonal items for future use isn’t limited to produce. Flash freezing is common in the fishing industry as well. In Door County, for example, our local fishing companies individually quick freeze the final catch of the season so our local restaurants can serve wonderful whitefish throughout the winter. Fisherman on both coasts often filet their catch on their vessels and “flash freeze” them right on the boat. No loss of taste or freshness. This same concept can be used in creating your own winter larder of favorite produce that can be savored all year long.
My produce hunting list for today includes fresh tomatoes to be oven dried, various herbs and fresh arugula for pesto and some butternut squash, to roast, puree and store for use in one of my favorite winter soups, maple butternut squash bisque. It’s Saturday, so that means the weekly Sister Bay Community Farmers Market on Hwy. 57 is going to serve as my one-stop shop farmer’s supermarket. One hour later, I have two bags overflowing with flavorful fresh produce on my kitchen table.
My goal is to prepare ingredients that I can use throughout the winter for two of my favorite recipes … a homemade pizza with oven dried tomatoes and pesto made on a par baked homemade crust and pureed butternut squash that can be thawed and made into my favorite maple butternut squash soup.
First off, oven drying tomatoes. Chef Jesse Johnson of the Waterfront Restaurant and the Door County Creamery taught me a great method of preserving these summer gems for future use when I was touring his Sister Bay goat farm earlier this summer. By cutting the tomatoes into half-inch slices and placing them on a rack over a baking pan, you can slow dry them over a four hour period in a low oven. After they’re dried, I go one step further and toss them in locally purchased olive oil from The Oilerie in Fish Creek and place them in either jars or freezer bags. If not using right away, off to the freezer they go, to be pulled out on a cold December day to compliment a terrific pizza.
Next, it’s time to make a couple of different pestos from my farmers market haul.
Pesto — It’s not just basil anymore. I love incorporating mint, oregano, sage and even arugula. This adds so much more dimension and layers of flavor to any dish. Freeze your pesto in small freezer containers or put it into ice cube trays. When frozen, pop out the pesto cubes and freeze in a larger bag. Just pick out a few when you are ready to use them. Although the color may not be as vibrant as it is when just made, the flavor doesn’t get lost.
My final item to be prepared is butternut squash. Cut it in half, place in a roasting pan with two-inch sides and put 1/2 inch of hot water in the pan. Cover loosely with foil and roast in a 350-degree oven until a paring knife goes easily into the squash — about one hour. Let cool, scoop out the squash, and puree it in a food processor. Place in freezer bags and pull out when ready to make my delicious maple butternut squash bisque.
Not only can the ingredients for these two recipes be made ahead, the pizza crusts can also be pre-made and individually frozen. My easy pizza crust is made in a food processor then formed into pizza crusts that are pre-cooked in a skillet or grill pan. Cool, place a piece of wax paper or parchment between each crust and place in a freezer bag. Remove them as needed. They will thaw in about 15 minutes and are ready to be finished with toppings and a final bake. Summer farm market shopping is a great experience. In Door County, we are blessed to have a community farm market open almost every day in some area of the county (check out the community farm market information page on page 43 of this magazine.)
Take a day and experience the bountiful harvest of our beautiful peninsula. With only a few hours of prep work you can savor that experience throughout the year.