Twin Cities chefs get creative and keep it local during the winter produce doldrums

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven … a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.”

— Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2 (and the Byrds)

As consumers have increasingly embraced the notion of locavore living — choosing to prioritize and purchase locally sourced products — the seemingly endless winters present a challenge for food lovers and the restaurants that feed them.

While we can find tomatoes and strawberries in January, they are decidedly less delectable than their midsummer iterations. And come mid-February, disheartened chefs are trying to figure out new ways to use kale, cabbage and kabocha squash.

Basically, everyone has to adjust their expectations, and to acknowledge the wisdom imparted by the Byrds and the Bible.

“We don’t have to have everything all the time,” said David Fhima, chef/owner of Fhima’s Minneapolis. “That is wrong on so many levels. … And as chefs, we need to create dishes around what Mother Nature’s going to give us.”

By and large, most restaurants that wear “locally sourced” as a badge of honor attain that goal year-round in the chilly Midwest. Over the past decade-plus, scores of regional purveyors have emerged to provide meats and cheeses, flour and other grains — even legumes and mushrooms.

Dozens of local restaurants now list these outfits on their menus, showing they’re locavore in everything but produce. And fish. In a state so landlocked that the nearest ocean is the Arctic (Hudson Bay), we don’t require the arctic char to come from Minnesota waters, but it’s not unreasonable to expect the bison and chicken to emanate from these parts.

The buy-local mode has proved even more beneficial during the pandemic. “The last year has seen a lot of supply-chain issues nationally,” said Revival chef/owner Thomas Boehmer, “whereas with local farmers there’s not the same level of disruptions.”

The ability to work more closely, literally and figuratively, with suppliers allows restaurateurs to have more quality control. “One thing we can do all the time is let ingredients speak to you,” Boehmer said.

And when certain items are not available? “We hew to the philosophy that if you can’t get an ingredient, you’re not going to make the dish,” Fhima said. “You have to be OK with saying ‘we’ll 86 an item.’ “

In a very real sense, the seasonal scenario can be not an obstacle, but an opportunity to be more resourceful. “You have to challenge yourself to be creative,” Boehmer said.

Chef/owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston changes half of her Nightingale menu twice every winter, and she adheres to the same overall approach even in what she calls “the doldrums” of midwinter. “The word I use more than any is ‘brightness,’ trying to stay a little on the lighter side with acid and a lot of green [flavors],” she said. “So we have a roasted turnip and radish dish that could be heavy, but I use an Indian-inspired spinach sauce.”

Every little bit helps

Several steps have been taken in recent years to alleviate the voids. Some are DIY — Fhima grows herbs in his home and restaurant — and others fall into the “what’s old is new” realm.

Preserving foods via canning and employing cellars are more prevalent than ever.

Many suppliers have expanded their root cellars. Aden Miller, one of the family farmers who comprise the St. Croix Valley Produce co-op in Woodville, Wis., still has an array of produce on hand. That allows Twin Cities eateries, including the Lynhall, Nightingale, Foodsmith and Chowgirls Catering, to get winter squashes plus a variety of cabbages, carrots, potatoes and beets, Miller said.

Chefs say the proliferation of smaller Minnesota farms such as Iron Shoe Farm in Princeton and Grand Risings Farm in Hinckley has also been a boon. Hothouses and hydroponics come into play with outfits such as Bushel Boy Farms in Owatonna and a few local micro-green growers.

A more recent expansion has come in the realm of mycology, well beyond spring-to-autumn foraging. “You can have a building in the middle of nowhere and get beautiful mushrooms,” said Boehmer, who expressed a particular fondness for pink oyster mushrooms, calling them “really beautiful.”

Some chefs are willing to go a little further afield. Restaurant Alma’s Alex Roberts has started buying late-season squash from Missouri to shave a bit off our culinary winters. “It’s still a smaller footprint than going to Florida, California or South America. We’ve changed from strictly local to regional.”

Still, Roberts added, many key elements that customers might not notice keep the farm-to-table concept intact. “When we’re making own pasta and can use locally milled flour, that’s great,” he said, adding that Alma and sister restaurants Brasa garner everything from cornmeal and barley to honey and maple from nearby sources.

Along those lines, Boehmer noted, “one thing we do to give a sense of place is a lot of partnerships with local distilleries and breweries. So we’re still able to support the local food economy.”

Getting antsy

The fresh-food juxtaposition creates a rather cruel irony, Boehmer said. At his former farm-to-table restaurant Corner Table, “winters were our busiest months. In summer, people are going to cabins when we have this huge bounty of ingredients.”

But on other fronts, he added, the bases are covered: “Chickens lay eggs all year round.” And cheeses and herb vinegars also fit in 365 days a year.

Naturally, as chefs adapt by concocting another variation of beets or turnips, “we’re just as antsy as anybody else to get asparagus and peas,” McCabe-Johnston said. The allure of ramp and morel season beckons.

Gastronomes have to be patient, too. Science and innovation can do only so much. The plain truth is that most fruits, veggies and herbs show better when kissed by a warm sun.

In the meantime, we all need to think twice — or thrice — about ordering a BLT in February.

Bill Ward is a longtime Twin Cities freelance food and drink writer now living in Nashville. He also writes at Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.

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