Story by Alaina Van Slooten, Photos by Colin Thompson
Sparrow arc farm beets. Main Grains cornmeal. Westfield Farm Classic blue cheese. Menu descriptions have grown increasingly specific as the public has become more interested in the origin of their food. “Eat Local” has gone from a bumper sticker to a mainstream movement as both restaurants and consumers have worked towards more sustainable supply chains and a greater sense of connection to our food. But here in Boston, where freezing temperatures are expected for half of the year and snow blankets farm fields throughout winter, how do restaurants find enough locally grown food to feed their discerning customers?
Locally sourced restaurants first need to have a keen sense of what is available. During Boston’s long winters, this is limited to storage crops, which can last for many months after a fall harvest if stored properly. Root vegetables, such as turnips, beets, and potatoes, as well as other produce like squashes, and even apples, become the backbone of many seasonal menus. Many restaurants have direct relationships with farmers to ensure that their businesses get the supplies they need. Boston-based fast food chain Clover Food Lab works with farmer Michael Docter to plan how many fields and which vegetables should be planted for winter. However, weather can significantly impact even the best-planned sourcing. Flexibility is key to adapting; restaurants can either search for new sources or adjust their menu accordingly.
Chefs must then develop enticing menus around Winter’s limited selection of crops. Some restaurants celebrate the season by making its produce the primary focus. Loyal Nine, a seasonal restaurant in Cambridge that focuses on the culinary traditions of New England, roasts a whole celery root and slices it to be served like a steak. Clover found success last winter with menu items centered around individual root vegetables: carrot, beet, or parsnip sandwiches. Another approach is to treat vegetables as rotating accompaniments to a set menu. Last year’s late winter menu at the fast-casual chain Dig Inn included sides like “spicy Peruvian potatoes” and “coconut roasted carrots,” which added vivid flavors to enhance the plainer palette of root vegetables. Fans of the Northeastern campus B.Good should look out for a maple roasted carrot and parsnip side coming in January.
However, there are “only so many dishes you can do with turnips and potatoes,” according to chef and co-owner of Loyal Nine, Marc Sheehan. Even with the ingenuity and skill of culinary teams, the most eco-conscious customer would rather not eat exclusively storage crops for six months of the year. Agricultural development has helped address this issue. Some New England farms’ greenhouses or hoop houses create warmer environments for crops that could not typically be grown in winter. They provide buyers with tomatoes and greens, like spinach and Swiss chard. B.Good has created a year-round source of herbs and lettuce right in Boston by partnering with Freight Farms, a manufacturer of hydroponic farms in shipping containers. Other restaurants, such as Dig Inn, expand their sourcing territory slightly south into Maryland or North Carolina, enabling them to find produce like broccoli without contradicting their local message.
Preservation has also emerged as a popular way to extend summer’s bounty. At the Loyal Nine, the kitchen staff saves large quantities of summer produce for later use. They pickle green tomatoes and ramps, freeze beans and fresh fruits, and work to ensure that their stores last for months. Come winter, they reintroduce the preserved ingredients to the menu to liven up dishes and contrast the starchy richness of winter vegetables. While it would seem that locally-sourced restaurants in Boston would be seriously limited by the short growing season, these conditions have bred innovative solutions. Through careful sourcing and creative recipe development, restaurants are able to satisfy both customers’ taste buds and their desire to eat local foods.
Winter Vegetable Pancake
Somewhere between okonomiyaki and latke
Interested in eating more seasonally, but not sure where to start? This is a good opportunity to those knobby root vegetables you wanted to try but didn’t know what to do with. This is also a good way to prevent food waste and use up the odds and ends in your fridge!
For the filling, mix and match firm vegetables, such as: parsnips, celeriac, kohlrabi, sweet potatoes, squash, onions, potatoes — even shredded cabbage would be good. If you have any leftover herbs wilting away in the fridge, chop and throw them in. For additional flavor, add the spices of your choosing.
- 2 eggs
- 2 Tbsp. water
- 1/3 cup flour
- ¼ tsp. baking powder
- ¼ tsp. salt
- Combine ingredients in a bowl and mix.
- Approximately 2 cups of grated vegetables
- Chopped herbs (optional)
- Spices (optional)
Squeeze grated vegetables in dish towel to remove liquid. Add fillings to batter. Pour a thin layer of oil in a frying pan and bring to medium heat. Place large spoonfuls of batter in the pan, flatten with back of spoon. Cook 3 minutes or until medium brown, flip, and cook 3 more minutes. Top with the sauce of your choice: apple sauce, kewpie mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, etc.