Melissa Barnes

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How Local Can You Go? Part Two

Jeri Gottlieb / September 2012

Food Arts brings you the second of a two-part series on some of America’s distinctive indigenous foods that clearly establish a sense of place and region, highlighting chefs who feature them in their restaurants.

In the June 2012 issue, Food Arts introduced chefs from the Northeast to the Great Lakes who are inspired by the bounty found, sometimes literally, in their backyard. Mary Dumont of Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Harvest hand picks wild beach peas and sea beans for a salad of shaved radish and fennel pollen vinaigrette, and Michael Brisson of l’étoile in Edgartown, Massachusetts, gathers Martha’s Vineyards’ wild beach plums for a variety of savory preparations. In the South, Husk’s Sean Brock searches roadsides for pokeweed to use in a salad or as the base for a fritter, whereas seasonal pawpaws make their way in the backdoor from the Pawpaw Man at Jonathan Lundy’s Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington, Kentucky, in the Midwest. Daniel Orr of FARMbloomington in Indiana gets his native persimmons from roadside stands on the way to work, while Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in Missouri must get the hickory nuts for his chocolate/hickory nut cake from a few states away, where they are hand-processed by a tiny company, although he has hickory trees growing nearby. In the Mid-Atlantic, iconic scrapple, a local everyman’s delicacy, appears on both Andrew Little’s Sheppard Mansion menu and that of Italian Amis Trattoria, led by Marc Vetri, while the similarly pedestrian Great Lakes rainbow smelts or pot-caught white fish gets a comparable luxe treatment at Bruce Sherman’s North Pond in Chicago.

(Read Part One here.)

Here, in Part Two, Food Arts travels west of the Mississippi and out into the Pacific Ocean to find more local foods and the chefs who prize them. Out West, elk and antelope are brought in for roasting and smoking, while much sought-after spot prawns, sardines, abalone, geoduck, and opihi are harvested from the Pacific and its shoreline. New Mexico boasts an area with its own chile appellation, and Hawaii, it turns out, serves a traditional dish called poi, little known—if at all—on the U.S. mainland. Dig in.

THE ROCKIES
Elk

While once widespread across North America, elk now are mostly found in the western states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado of the United States. Efforts to reestablish elk population farther east have been made over the last century, for example in Pennsylvania, and continue today in Virginia. Historically, elk have been hunted for meat and hides, from prehistoric man to Native Americans to European settlers. The tradition of consuming elk continues to this day. David Walford of Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek, Colorado, offers an elk tenderloin on his menu, which he purchases from Prairie Harvest of South Dakota, a specialty meat purveyor. As with any commodity, the chef is subject to the forces of supply and demand, or more specifically, the availability of fresh elk. Therefore, his Rocky Mountain elk may come from Canada as well as the U.S. Rocky Mountain states.

“We serve bacon-wrapped roasted elk tenderloin with black pepper/rhubarb compote, best made with North American elk tenderloin. The elk is seasoned with herbes de Provençe and black pepper before being wrapped in bacon, roasted, and presented with a compote of rhubarb, farro, and a salad of watercress, watermelon radish, and Champagne vinaigrette. A natural meat jus made from the meat scraps, red wine, veal stock, and a little bit of rhubarb tops the elk. This is a rustic dish, suitable to the wild and rugged terrain of the Rockies.”

OUT WEST
Cactus, antelope

Prickly pear cactus is found mostly in Mexico and the western United States. Nopales, or cactus pads, are the young, tender stems of this cactus, which are usually eaten fresh, boiled, or grilled, once their sharp spines are scraped off. A staple in Mexico, cactus can also be found on menus throughout the Southwest, like that of Jon Bonnell’s at his Fort Worth, Texas, restaurant Bonnell’s.

“Grilled cactus usually catches most guests by surprise. The texture and flavor are a cross between okra and bell peppers, with a slightly more acidic bite. We remove the thorns, dust them with our Texas Red Dirt Rub—a custom blend of iodized salt, granulated garlic, fine black pepper, cayenne, dried thyme, dried oregano, paprika, onion powder, dried basil, cumin, coriander, chile powder, and dry mustard powder—grill them over pecan wood, then slice and serve them. We also serve a chicken and cactus with romesco sauce, a great family-style dish. The sauce is complex but very light on spice, and the chicken and cactus have a chance to braise long enough to become tender.”

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the nilgai antelope was brought to Texas from India before the mid-1920s as a zoo animal, then released into the south Texas wild around 1930. The blackbuck antelope shares a similar history. Seventy percent of these exotics inhabit private, game-fenced pastureland, while the remaining 30 percent roam free. The population of exotics has also risen during the last century, and now it’s thought there are more types and a greater number of exotic game in Texas than in any part of North America. Both the nilgai and the blackbuck antelope produce lean, mild flavored meat much like veal. Bonnell also cooks these exotics at his restaurant.

“The smoked nilgai antelope salad is one of my favorite dishes to serve in the summer for lunch. It’s rich enough to satisfy, but it’s not overly heavy as to require a nap afterwards. Blackbuck antelope meat is much richer and leaner, suited for earthy flavors like wild mushrooms and red wine.”

THE SOUTHWEST
Hatch chiles

The handful of chile varieties cultivated in and around Hatch, New Mexico, are collectively known as Hatch chiles. The green chiles are usually roasted, peeled, seeded, and then stuffed with cheeses or meats or cut into strips to adorn a hamburger. Red, or ripened, chiles become sweeter and mellower as they age, making for a totally different taste. These are dried and used to make sauces. Frederick Muller features these singular green chiles on his menu at El Meze in Taos, New Mexico.

“Hatch chiles, harvested in the early fall while still green, are recognized for the rich flavor they achieve when fire-roasted. Many New Mexico green chiles are grown throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California, but like AOC designations in Europe, unless it’s grown in Hatch, New Mexico, it can only be considered a New Mexico green chile, not a Hatch green chile. In the restaurant, we serve a chile rajas—a roasted Hatch chile, sweet roasted red peppers, Spanish chèvre, Spanish olive oil, sea salt, and fresh oregano with grilled flatbread.”

THE PACIFIC
Abalone, spot prawns, sardines, geoduck

Abalone is a mollusk found along California’s shores. Over the years, overharvesting by divers and commercial fishermen, along with disease and other environmental factors, have led to their significant decline. As a result, the abalone harvest is now carefully controlled, and stringent restrictions are in place to ensure that their populations are replenished. However, farmed abalone is available, and it’s a fixture on the menu at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, near the center of abalone in this country. There, new executive chef John Cox continues the local foods program initiated during the long tenure of his predecessor, Craig von Foerster.

“I get my abalone live from nearby Monterey Abalone Company. It’s a really great product and is a very sustainable operation, from feeding the abalone with kelp to using biodegradable vegetable oil in all equipment, so there is no environmental risk,” says Cox. “I like to prepare the abalone similarly to the way Craig did, with brown butter, tomato, and basil. Another technique I really like is to shuck and scrub the abalone, then shave it paper thin. I toss it with Carmel Valley olive oil, Meyer lemon, and sea salt, along with wild foraged radish blossoms, mustard flowers, and wood sorrel. The abalone has an incredibly crisp texture and mild flavor, perfectly complemented by the spicy herbs. Since the Post Ranch Inn has over 100 acres of meadows and forest, I plan on incorporating many local wild ingredients.”

Spot prawns are the largest shrimp caught off the West Coast, growing up to six inches long. Found at depths of 150 feet to 1,600 feet, they’re prized in California. Cox likens their sweetness to lobster.

“Because the demand for spot prawns is so high in Asian markets, the majority are sent to the San Francisco Bay area live markets or exported,” Cox says. “We can still find them on occasion, but it’s becoming more and more difficult each year. I like to cut the whole prawn in half, brush it with harissa paste and butter, and then finish it in a wood-burning oven or on a grill, so the meat cooks inside the half shell. Another great preparation is to peel the tail but leave the head attached, then put the prawns in a simple cava batter and fry them in very hot oil. You can add any number of seasonal vegetables, such as fennel, spring onion, artichoke, et cetera, for a fritto misto.”

Pacific sardines sustained a thriving canning industry in Monterey, California, during the early part of the 1900s. However, cyclical ocean water temperature changes decimated the sardine population and eradicated the industry. Now, with sardines rebounding, they’re a feature of Sierra Mar’s menu.

“This is another local item that’s abundant but challenging to find,” reports Cox. “Like the prawns, most sardines are exported in large batches and sold by the ton rather than the pound. When I get them, I simply marinate them with olive oil, garlic, and balsamic vinegar, grill them to crisp the skin, and serve them with heirloom tomatoes or Meyer lemon.”

Geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) is the largest burrowing clam in the world and the longest living, often surviving for over 100 years. The greatest number in the United States are found in the Pacific Northwest, most notably in the Puget Sound bays and estuaries, where millions lie three feet beneath the sand, feeding on marine algae with their often meter-long siphon protruding from their open bivalve shells. While not often available outside their habitat, many are shipped to Asia, where they’re an expensive and prized delicacy. These large clams grow in both wild and cultivated tracts and, while they can reach up to eight pounds, are generally harvested at around two pounds. The Washington Department of Natural Resources manages the harvest each year, making sure that just 2.7 percent of the commercially available geoducks are fished from their region annually. Seattle’s Anchovies & Olives, an Ethan Stowell restaurant regularly featuring geoduck as well as other Northwest shellfish, prepares the big clam as a crudo. Here, chef Zach Chambers serves it with cucumbers, mint, and chiles.

“We thinly slice the minimally blanched and cleaned siphon, toss it with sliced Persian cucumber, mint leaves, and serrano chiles that have been pickled in a sweet vanilla pickling liquid,” Chambers says. “The liquid also serves as the dressing for the dish, along with extra-virgin olive oil, lime juice, and salt as needed. It’s incredibly fresh and bright with great textural contrast between the cucumber and geoduck. The mint adds a mellowing flavor against the spice of the serrrano chile, and the inclusion of vanilla is an interesting and tasty flavor that melds well with the whole dish.”

HAWAII
Opihi, poi

Opihi are a type of marine snail called a limpet. Four species are found only in Hawaii, along dangerous rocky shorelines amid pounding surf. Opihi are harvested by pickers who literally risk their lives to get at their briny goodness. Alan Wong serves these hard-won delicacies at his fine dining restaurant Alan Wong’s Honolulu.

“The opihi were a source of food for the early Hawaiians,” says Wong. “Those we use are found in local waters and range in size, starting at one inch. Their texture is similar to that of baby abalone. There are three common types: yellow, gray, and brown, with yellow being the most sought-after. Some people clean the innards off the muscle, but most like to eat opihi with the innards attached. When the innards are attached, you can taste the brininess of the ocean. The opihi’s taste is unique, and there’s nothing like it. Our opihi shooter is a great way for a first-timer or someone unfamiliar with its flavor to taste opihi. It’s served in tomato water, which is sweet but slightly acidic. The aromatics in the glass include shiso, fennel, ume [Japanese plum], green onion, and wasabi. When you shoot this, it’s a refreshing palate-cleanser. The opihi is strong in flavor like sea urchin, but eating it this way is not as full-flavored as eating it alone. Locals like to eat opihi by itself because they like the full flavor.”

Poi, derived from the corm of the taro plant, is a unique starchy purple paste ubiquitous in the islands. It’s a dish rather than a condiment that ferments as it ages, taking on a sought-after tang a few days after being made. Wong makes various uses of poi.

“The taro root is steamed, peeled, and then pounded, while water is slowly incorporated, forming a paste. While taro is the main ingredient for poi, other products have been prepared the same way, such as breadfruit, sweet potato, and bananas. You can also use any combination of those to make a poi dish. Taro was considered to be sacred in early Hawaii, and there were rules for eating poi. For one, you couldn’t argue while poi was on the table. It was served in one calabash bowl for the whole family. Instead of spoons, everyone used their fingers to scoop the poi from the bowl, and you had to place your fingers into the same part of the bowl every time. Only one person could scoop the poi at a time. The quality of the poi was determined by the amount of fingers you had to use to scoop it. Two-finger poi was usually thicker than three- or four-finger poi. When you wanted to display good hospitality, you would serve two-finger poi. In the restaurant, we’ve used poi to emulsify vinaigrettes and thicken stews or sauces. It’s high in alkaline properties.”

ALASKA
Reindeer

Reindeer aren’t native to Alaska, having been introduced from Siberia in the late 1800s to help Native Alaskans recuperate from the severe depletion of marine mammals following the era when Bering Strait whalers traded goods for local pelts, hides, and meat. By the 1930s, the reindeer herd, made exclusively the purvey of Native Alaskans, a law that exists today, reached 640,000. But those numbers quickly declined as a result of harsh winters, predation, migration with caribou, and economic and political factors affecting native herdsmen. Today, a handful of herders manage approximately 20,000 reindeer. Although more Alaskan myth than flourishing industry, reindeer meat can still be found sporadically on area menus, including Snow City Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in downtown Anchorage. Here, executive chef Adam Klemensen offers a nod to local history, serving up reindeer sausage.

“We get our reindeer sausage from locally owned and operated Indian Valley Meats of Indian, Alaska,” he says. “For us, reindeer sausage is a tasty alternative to traditional breakfast meats and is one of the most popular menu items for visitors to try. We use it in omelets and scrambles, and it’s also featured in an Alaskan twist on the sandwich classic—our Reindeer Reuben features grilled reindeer sausage served with sauerkraut, house-made Dijonaise, Swiss cheese, and locally baked marbled rye.”

Again, in case you missed it, read Part One of this article here.