Ripe for a Change?
Fill the Menu with Summer’s Produce Profusion
Diversity and bounty. That’s how Chef Dave Woolley sums up produce’s finest season, happening now at a farm near you.
“There’s so much more available now, including items that didn’t grow in this country even 20 years ago,” says Woolley, who believes so strongly in the promise of produce that three years ago he moved from the fine dining world to representing fruit and vegetable commissions. A fan of the underutilized and the affordable, he recommends looking beyond the admittedly irresistible lure of summer classics like buttery sweet corn on the cob and juicy stone fruits to Chinese squash, fennel, avocados and Meyer lemons. Versatile players in the kitchen, they serve as distinct differentiators on the menu, and all are particularly appealing to advocates of the growing veg-centric movement.
Yes, it’s more than a trend, it's a full-blown movement, assures Woolley, but hold up a minute. It’s not that protein has become persona non grata on the menu, it’s about veggies moving into the center of the plate, across all day parts and dining venues.
“Fundamentally, it’s about eating better, healthier, and today’s diners are much more accepting of these ideas than ones previously associated with strict veganism,” says Woolley. By next year, he predicts, the veg-centric concept will be a menu mainstay, but in a broader, even somewhat stealthy sense, such as offering Brussels sprouts mixed liberally with bacon.
Get started on your journey to the center of the produce plate this summer. While the season begins in May and keeps blooming through the end of September, by the time fireworks are exploding across the sky in July, the season is at its peak. The timing is all-important because catching fruits at their ripest perfection makes a huge difference.
“The taste is phenomenally better,” says Ben Randolph, chef de cuisine at Restaurant Eleven Eleven in Missouri’s Broadway Hotel. “Anyone who’s eaten a not-quite-ripe tomato knows what I mean! But in the summer, there’s nothing better than a caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves, drizzled with olive oil.”
Randolph’s other summertime faves are wonderfully eclectic – chipotle peach sauce atop a chicken flatbread, miso apple slaw on pulled pork, grilled peaches with a balsamic glaze, watermelon popping up in a traditional Greek salad, and an easy but spectacular tasting watermelon rind kimchi.
Are you grilling me?
As good as they are in their all-natural state, experts recommend giving summer produce the grill treatment.
“A bit of olive oil and Italian seasoning, and those great grill marks elevate the whole vegetable experience with great flavor and a beautiful presentation,” says Kathy Means, Produce Marketing Association. Another welcome benefit: using a preponderance of produce decreases costs significantly, she says.
Also finding a comfortable home on the coals – peaches, bananas (sliced in half with a little honey added), apples fresh from South America, sprinkled with cinnamon, or de-pitted nectarines for a healthy ice cream garnish. Peel back the husk on an ear of sweet corn and add Old Bay spice, cut plentiful summer zucchini lengthwise into long strips, and add both to the grill. Change it up, urges Means, by summer-izing a fall classic, such as a summer hash, with cubed, grilled produce piled on top of grilled potatoes.
You can press your wood-burning oven into service, and benefit from the caramelizing that occurs as a result. Smoking techniques work well too, as long as the produce is “treated with the same reverence as a brisket or pork shoulder,” says Woolley.
Looking for something more chill?
Take a watery fruit like watermelon or cantaloupe and puree into a smoothie (or try spinach for an “extra oomph of nutrition,” says Means). Or take the pureed fruit, freeze in an ice tray, and use the cubes to infuse incredible flavor into drinks.
Watermelon Rind Kimchi
- 1.5 lb watermelon rind
- ¼ C kosher salt
- ¼ C sugar
- ¾ C Sriracha sauce
Peel the rind from the melon leaving about a 1/4” of the red fruit still attached. Remove the green skin from the outer layer. Thinly slice rind into 1/8” thick strips. Combine salt and sugar and sprinkle mixture over rind slices, tossing occasionally to coat evenly. Store refrigerated overnight. Drain any accumulated liquid before tossing slices in Sriracha.
Source: Chef Ben Randolph, Restaurant Eleven Eleven