Field Notes: From the Chef Liaison at the Culinary Vegetable Institute of The Chef's Garden's Fall Journal
This is a story about time and place.
The time: 5:45pm October 10, 2013.
The place: Northeast Ohio in the fertile bottoms of Lake Erie.
Walking through this productive land on this particular part of fall in this specific region, you may or may not notice the same things I have. Either way, they're happening.
The vibrant green grasses still damp from this morning’s fog. Wild fox grapes slowly raisinate as their season comes to an end. A distant fire burning. Grasshoppers, ladybugs and wooly bear caterpillars make haste for their final destination to wherever their fate may be. The pheasants silently emerge from the drying soybean fields in an apparent attempt to eat every last grain and insect that crosses their path. The sunflowers no longer look to the sun while the majestic shaggy mane mushrooms stand tall and fall within hours of emerging from the lawn. I especially love the unique hollow thud of the last falling black walnuts and the aromatic perfume that follows.
This time of year brings an incredible bounty of produce, as late summer crops can overlap into fall. Nature provides such a natural rhythm to what to eat and when, if we allow it. You see, there is no dividing line. It’s more like an imbrication, or one massive shifting Venn diagram.
In the fields right now, the spring asparagus is still growing, three-foot ferns with red berries scattered throughout. Tomatoes are still on the vine hanging on until the very first soft frost indicates their time has come to an end. The lettuces, cabbages, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spinach are in line to transform into intense colors and rich textures while the potatoes are set and ready, patiently waiting their turn to be harvested.
Out here in farm country, the combines create the only traffic jams this time of year. They move from field to field, and after the clouds of dust settle, the deer follow, cleaning up what was left behind.
What is happening around me here now is inspiring on so many levels. It’s easy to think about a carrot as simply a root vegetable, but for 5,000 years it was only an herb and a spice for its leaves and its seeds, and not for its root, which is all we have really explored for the past 300 years. The rich history and tradition of carrot herb and carrot spice is gone.
I’m inspired by the idea that every part of a plant’s life offers something new and unique to the plate. From the root to the bulb, or the stem to the leaf, the bloom, the pollen, the fruit, the seed, in most cases, these are all incredible additions to the palate of colors and textures and flavors that nature provides, whether we explore them or not. I’m inspired by the idea that despite standard agricultural models and grocery store box offerings, there are still vast regional distinctions of flavors based almost entirely on nature.
To walk through the garden is to walk through a sanctuary of flavors, aromas, textures and sounds. Go placidly.
Take from it only what speaks to you and try something new. This is micro-seasonal cooking in its purest form. These ingredients are not available at the store. They're available in these woods, in these fields and on this lawn, right here and right now. This is not progressive, pioneering, modern or avant-garde. This is a retreat to a pure connection with our surroundings, which simply requires observation and reflection.
I'm assembling a dish inspired by this particular moment. To act on it takes immediate initiative.
Sun-dried fox grapes
Green walnuts, bruised on one side
Dry soybean plants
Young shaggy mane mushrooms
Wild sunchoke blossoms and young tubers
Soy milk braised pheasant
Sunflower seed hulls and soy bean stalks
Smoke, a distant fire
Shaggy mane mushrooms cooked in schmaltz and green walnut zest
Mélange of wild grains, roots, fruits and blossoms
Charred rye grass and oxalis emulsion