It's a Short Trip to Big Flavor: Menus stay fresh with produce from local fields

When you’re cooking fresh, colorful meals, there’s a lot to be said for a tomato that ripened on the vine instead of on a truck from California.

If it comes from a St. Louis tomato patch, it might well wind up on a local restaurant table with other fruits and vegetables from the metropolitan area. And it will be fresher and more wholesome because it rode across town instead of across the continent, say area farmers and restaurateurs.

“Let’s face it, locally grown produce is more healthy and nutritious because it has been freshly picked,” said Sandra Zak, manager of the historic Soulard Farmers’ Market in St. Louis. “The longer produce has been away from the tree, vine or stalk, the more it loses important vitamins and nutrients, as well as some of those wonderful aromas and firmness.” As we head into the autumn months, those locally grown foods can make holiday menus even more nutritious, colorful and festive.

Fruits of the farm

The tomato is one of the most widely grown foods in this area, but other fruits, nuts, meats, herbs and vegetables are successfully raised here, as well.

“From a quality standpoint, there is no comparison,” said Lou Rook III, executive chef at Annie Gunn’s Restaurant in Chesterfield. “Fruits, vegetables, herbs and lettuces from our local farmers are unbelievable compared to the mass-produced products from other areas of the country. Still, there are times when you do have to rely on the other sources because of our growing seasons. Convenience is a problem [here] because you are working with what is available, and sometimes it can be sporadic.”

To counteract the occasional uncertainty of local availability, Rook’s staff meets each January with its main local vegetable supplier, St. Isidore Farm, located in Moscow Mills. Together, they chart the restaurant’s usage for the year as closely as possible. “We have been doing this for three years, and it is getting better all the time,” Rook said. “When we have products mapped out like this, our menu is almost completely driven by the products that are available.”

Rook said his kitchen also uses poultry and eggs from Shoal Creek Farm in Raymond, Ill.; trout from Troutdale Farm in Gravois Mills; bison meat from SayersBrook Bison Ranch in Potosi; and fruits from Eckert’s orchards in Illinois and several other small local purveyors. He said prices sometimes are higher for locally produced foods, but it’s well worth gratifying the customer’s palate.

“Diners are becoming more educated, and it’s our job to participate in the education process,” he said. “There is nothing like our homegrown products presented very simply with their natural flavors. They just blow your taste buds away due to their freshness and massive flavors, which come naturally to the product. When you get to this point, and we do our job, price is secondary on both sides.”

Sometimes, tomatoes, corn and other produce even come from the private gardens of trusted neighbors and friends in addition to local farms, said Carolyn Downs, co-owner and pastry chef at Cyrano’s in Webster Groves. “We like to work with local people because when we run out of something, they can often send more right over,” she said. “That way we can also buy smaller quantities of more perishable items, which reduces waste. Besides, they’re not being picked green like they would if they were from California or Florida.”

Downs also orders strawberries from local growers in season, and uses mushrooms, nuts, herbs, local honey and other items from Fresh Mushroom Farms in Imperial. The products are used in chef Paul Walbaum’s tomato and mushroom soups, chicken spiedini with cherry tomatoes, panzanella (an Italian tomato and crouton salad) and a grape salad with macadamia nuts, among other dishes.

Downs also orders green and red peppers and popular fall produce, such as squash, from local growers. “We’ll do organic pumpkin desserts this autumn,” she said. “We get smaller pumpkins that are grown for that. They’re tastier and make better pies.” Local apples, peaches and pears sweeten up other seasonal desserts at Cyrano’s, depending on which crops produce well each year. “Last year, the peaches weren’t as juicy because of the dryness of the weather,” Downs said. “This year, the peaches – and the tomatoes – were especially good.

“I have produce people in St. Louis who can find almost anything I need. If I want long-stemmed strawberries for Valentine’s Day, they’ll look for that. If I need a specific type of mushroom, they’ll find it for me.”

Autumn on the menu

As the months grow cooler, there are local growers who specialize in produce diners naturally associate with fall. Angela Riemensnider of Summer’s End Farm outside Iberia sells squash varieties that add the colors of the earth to hearty autumn fare in area restaurants.

One of her favorites is marina di chioggia, an Italian squash variety that works well in a gnocchi dish she makes herself. Also known as sea pumpkin, the squash has a dry, flaky consistency that makes it an ideal ingredient for the gnocchi, she said.

“Squash comes in a variety of colors, shapes, textures and tastes,” she said. “Some are naturally sweet, lending themselves to dessert dishes such as pies, while others taste more like a vegetable.”

She recommended serving squash simply by cutting them in half, brushing with olive oil and sprinkling with salt, then baking until tender. “They are also great on the grill,” Riemensnider said. Another fall favorite of hers is acorn squash cut in half, seeded and filled with a mixture of chopped apples, raisins, cinnamon and butter. “This can be a healthy side dish or a light meal,” she said. “Just bake the squash until tender. Don’t worry about peeling them – they make a great little self-contained dish.”

Riemensnider’s farm also sells gourds and pumpkins, which work just as well for decoration as they do on a restaurant menu.

From herbs to desserts

Kyle Patterson, former executive chef at Blue Water Grill in Kirkwood, said his kitchen uses tomatoes, peppers and herbs from local growers. (Patterson took over as executive chef at Puck’s in the St. Louis Art Museum as of Oct. 30.) He, too, has friends and neighbors who supply small amounts of homegrown produce, including shiso, a Japanese herb; epazote, which is used in Southwestern cooking; and edible flowers, chives and other herbs. One Kirkwood source simply contacts him “whenever she has stuff in,” Patterson said.

He likes to use locally grown foods for specials whenever possible. He has purchased elk meat from a Missouri rancher just outside Rolla, peaches from Murray’s Peach Orchard and tomatoes from Thies Farm on North Hanley Road and Hartke Nursery in St. Louis County.

Lori Murray of Murray’s Peach Orchard in Calhoun County, Ill., supplies peaches, blackberries, raspberries and tomatoes to a number of local restaurants. Fruits from her orchard often appear in an apricot liqueur-glazed torte at Sunset 44 Bistro in Kirkwood. She also uses the peaches in the Peach French Toast Cobbler served at her B&B, the Eastlake Inn
in Kirkwood.

Her restaurant sales strategy is simple: “I call my customers, ask them how much they need, then I deliver.” Or, chefs can stop by the Maplewood, St. Charles and Tower Grove farmers’ markets and pick up her flavorful fruits.

Fresher is better

It’s especially important to buy items locally because they break down quickly once refrigerated, Patterson said. “Besides, they taste better, they can be grown with fewer pesticides and we like to support the local farmers. They take pride in it and take more time, doing the picking themselves.” Sometimes, area growers also can produce specific varieties at a restaurant’s request. Patterson said it’s helpful to know the sources of the food he’s ordering, to make sure their growing processes are in keeping with his restaurant’s health-conscious food philosophy.

Patterson buys local peppers and pickles them for use in a sauce for chicken dishes. “You can often get local heirloom peppers for less than what the big suppliers charge,” he said. He’s also considering ordering goat cheese from a local producer, and possibly using an area fish farm for trout and catfish.

Allan Nolte said he grows vegetables “from asparagus to zucchini” on his 35-acre Nolte Farms in Collinsvile. Beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages and other greens also make their way from his land to local restaurants. “I deliver to 15 or 20 restaurants,” he said, among them Bar Italia, Forest Hills Country Club and Riddle’s Penultimate Café and Wine Bar. Larry Forgione’s An American Place Restaurant also buys Nolte’s produce. “Restaurants are an important part of my business,” Nolte said. He has at least one or two new ones calling each week.

Prices charged to restaurants can vary between the local farmer and out-of-town growers, Nolte said. It often depends on annual weather conditions and other factors outside human control. Some items are produced less expensively by local farmers; others cost more to buy at home. Downs said many larger suppliers are adding gas surcharges to their produce orders because of high fuel costs, but she feels local farms are trying to stay away from that to keep good relations with area customers.

“I’d rather have a personal relationship with a local farm owner and be on a first-name basis with them,” Downs said. “It’s nice to talk to people you know – and get what you need today. I may pay more, but it’s worth it.”