I work at a farm-to-table fine dining restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our menu changes seasonally, we buy as much as we can locally (we even have our own garden in the summer), and I can finally genuinely recommend dishes now.We recently started our new fall menu and had a tasting. I was told to bring my camera, and me, being the aspiring food photographer that I am, jumped on that opportunity like there was no tomorrow. Even though I had to take the pictures quick, I think they some of them still turned out pretty nice.
I also learned, realized, and was reminded of some things that are useful in my own cooking. They’re not super profound, but something doesn’t necessarily have to be profound to offer insights. I guess I could call these subtle reminders and inspirations 🙂
1. Do what you gotta do to try and eat local!
At the restaurant, we have an herb garden outside in the summer and fall, and we buy local produce when it’s available. Aside from just produce, we try to get some of our meats and dairy from local sources as well; all three of the pictures above show meats bought from Michigan farms, and we also get local cheeses and amish butter.
Buying local supports the farmers in your area, and you get to see right where your food comes from and possibly get to know your farmers as well. Look for farmers and farmers markets in your area, join a CSA, or grow your own food (you can grow herbs indoors in the winter!). I recently learned about a farm here in Michigan that grows vegetables through the winter in a greenhouse, and they have a FarmBox that costs $22 for a small box or $30 for a large one. They’re dropped up at many different locations and all you do is go pick up your box each week at one of the closest locations. What a great price and way to get local, fresh, organic, seasonal produce! I’m in the process of signing up and am excited to start receiving boxes soon 🙂 I will most likely post about it all in the future so stay tuned!
2. Eat with the seasons.
I was happy to see on our new menu things like pumpkin seed puree, sour apple slaw, jicama, kohlrabi, brussel sprout leaves, gingerbread spices, butternut squash, ginger-apple stuffing, cranberries, and cauliflower.
I don’t do this as often as I could, but this one rolls right off of #1 because eating local and eating with the seasons go hand in hand. A couple benefits of eating with the seasons are enhanced flavor and nutritional value and affordability. Not only is the produce cheaper, but it also tastes better and may also have more nutrients. Seasons are apart of nature’s balance and we often forget what to eat and how to eat seasonally because of modern food processing. We have so much available to us year round, but eating seasonally is going to offer us the best tasting, most affordable foods. Look for charts that show what’s being grown in your region during different months of the year.
3. Make your own dressings.
From this menu, and the last one, I came to realize that making dressing is not all that hard and can actually be kind of fun. As I talked about in my last post, I don’t really like to buy conventional dressings because I’d rather skip out on some of the junk, know what all the ingredients are and experiment making simpler ones myself.
I’m a lover of greens and dressing them well helps make your dishes and salads taste phenomenal! Here are some combinations I’ve seen:
shallot, garlic, salt and pepper, dijon mustard, any type of vinegar (sherry, balsamic, white wine)
paprika vinaigrette-dijon mustard, salt and pepper, olive oil, lemon juice, honey, white vinegar, paprika
apple cider vinaigrette-apple cider, olive oil, salt and pepper, honey, lemon juice, shallot
white balsamic vinaigrette-white balsamic vinegar, shallot, garlic, olive oil, dijon mustard
You’ll notice some similarities in these dressings. Shallot and/or garlic (minced), salt and pepper, olive oil, and something astringent (usually vinegar). You can play around with proportions using these ingredients and make a dressing you like that you can keep in the fridge! Also, check out my last post titiled ‘The Pack-a-Salad Method’ to learn about more dressing ideas.
4. Vary your greens..and how you cook them!
Some new greens we have on this menu include swiss chard, mustard greens, lovage, celery hearts, and brussel sprout leaves. The swiss chard and mustard greens are braised, and if you don’t know what that means exactly, neither did I.
I recently inquired about what braising entails exactly and found out that it is the process of searing – kind of like sautéing on high heat – the food first in a pan (possibly with garlic/onion/shallot and oil) and then adding a small amount of liquid and cooking it on low heat in a closed container. The greens taste really great actually by doing this because you break down some of the firmness of greens like swiss chard and you can add other flavors that cook right into the greens. It also tastes nice when eating it with the protein like the duck above. I look forward to trying this method with collard greens!
The lovage and celery hearts are both raw. Using raw greens is great for salads and garnishes to dishes. The brussel sprout leaves are cooked with the pasta dish and is a great reminder that you can cook greens (and other vegetables) into so many different dishes -pasta, quinoa, eggs, rice – during or towards the end of the cooking process. Usually you want to add greens towards the very end so they don’t get overcooked.
5. Experiment with making reductions.
I used to not know what a reduction was. Then when I did, I thought it must be complicated.
The truth is that it’s not at all. Place ingredients (below) in a pan. Boil and stir so the water cooks off in the form of steam and you are left with a thicker consistency than you started with. You should end up with a sauce-like consistency but the longer you heat, the more syrup-like consistency. Don’t ever cover the pan with a lid though because you need the water to steam off!
Reductions make for some great sauces to many different dishes. And the best part about them; they’re bold and full of character. Probably like your uncle.
You can make reductions with different combinations of some of the following:
- vinegar (balsamic, white/red wine, white, sherry, apple cider, champagne)
- juices (orange, cranberry, lemon, lime, apple juice/cider)
- stock (chicken, beef, fish, vegetable)
- garlic, onions or shallots
- seasonings (rosemary, thyme, tarragon, salt, pepper)
- wine (any red or white, ports)
You can just do very simple ones with just vinegar and stock, but if you love experimenting in the kitchen, play around with the ingredients mentioned above and what you have on hand! You may not want to do this often because reducing takes a little bit of time, but if you’re looking to have a nice meal and you want to add some bold flavors, this can be your answer! Just imagine your friends’ faces when you tell them you made, say, a New York Strip steak with a shallot red red wine reduction.
So, the bottom line and moral of my story here: you don’t have to pay $35 for a good home-cooked wholesome dish that features real and nourishing ingredients and tastes divine (unless you’re serving maybe 6 or 7 people, which is even better!). I used to think cooking in general was this big beast, and I didn’t want to touch it. Once I finally took the plunge and started learning about food and cooking in general, I realized that it’s such an art and a fun one at that!
And now for a little YOLO action right here:
homemade brown butter cake and homemade pomegranate and pumpkin gelato