There are many local chefs who are incorporating local foods into their seasonal restaurant menus. For example, you may have noticed local greens featured in salads at New World Bistro in Albany. This is just one example of how chefs like Ric Orlando at the bistro serve as critical links between farmers and consumers. They’re serving products that farmers are raising, and influencing food trends.
It may seem like a new trend, but “cooking with local and fresh ingredients” has actually been common practice among chefs for a long time. As almost any chef will say, “Be sure to get the freshest ingredients you can!”
Cooking at home with local and fresh ingredients is just as important as it is at restaurants. While most of us don’t cook like restaurant chefs every day, we can borrow techniques and recipes from them. And it’s relatively easy, with access to popular cooking shows, and the ability to “Google” recipes. Whether you want to master a soufflé or just get a healthy dinner on the table in under an hour, there is a lot of information available on how to reach your cooking goals.
Famed chef, Julia Child puts the idea of cooking nicely in her book from 1989 – The Way to Cook. The opening paragraphs, read, in part:
…we are becoming more health conscious and more aware of what is in our food. That very awareness is the best of all reasons for learning ‘The Way to Cook’.
While attitudes about food have changed…the principles of good cooking have not. The more one knows about it, the less mystery there is, the faster cooking becomes and the easier it is to be creative and to embrace new trends and ideas – in addition, the more pleasure one has in the kitchen.
That Julia! She was onto something hey?
Let’s take some of the mystery out of the art of cooking, as Child suggests, by getting to know a little about what some of our local chefs are doing. Maybe you’ll discover a new love for cooking, rekindle one you had, or just plain be inspired!
Chef Nicci Cagan
Chef Nicci Cagan is a coordinator of Farm to School in Ulster County’s Roundout Valley Central School District, member of the Chefs Consortium, and director of From the Ground Up, (a garden based wellness initiative).
The Chefs Consortium is “a group of chefs those who advocate sustainability to raise awareness of local food systems and regional history through the creation of dynamic events, market and cooking demonstrations, culinary and sustainability education, seed to table initiatives, farm to school programming, and work with regional food pantries and other deserving organizations. We believe that all food has a story, and we are out to celebrate communities and change lives one bite at a time,” as stated on https://www.chefsconsortium.com.
The Chefs Consortium formed in spring 2010, and has been a steady and growing network among local chefs. Sharing ideas, cooking together and interacting with audiences about ingredients and using local foods is what it’s all about. Since The Chefs Consortium started, member chefs have participated in food events up and down the Hudson Valley from the Adirondacks to New York City.
Some of the most successful recipes, especially with Farm to School, Chef Cagan says, are ones where kids can be involved with the process of cooking. Often when you start in the classroom and let the children know where the food comes from, what it’s all about – it can be a wonderful starting point. They’re more likely to try recipes they know something about (or they’ve had a hand in making).
“Crepes were a big hit. We did some up in the classroom and the kids just loved them!” she says of one such experience.
Add to that a little taste testing, bringing agriculture into the classroom and you’ve got kids bringing home ideas to parents!
‘Specials’ that have worked nicely – that can just as well be adapted at home – include; Fresh Food on Fridays and Try it Tuesdays.
When it comes to home cooking, Cagan advises to think about simplicity and flavor: just a few simple ingredients. A good combination she says, is roasted vegetables with herbs from the garden, olive oil and salt and pepper. There, you’ve got a side dish! Boil up some noodles, toss with the vegetables, and top with a little good quality shaved parmesan cheese and you’ve got a meal!
“Food has its own integrity,” she says. Letting that shine is important. Whether the flavors are sweet, or sour, Cagan suggests, “Wake up your mouth with your food!”
I met Chef Noah Sheetz for an interview at a community garden in Albany, on a very hot July day. Before he arrived, I had a few minutes to look around at what was being grown. I was surprised to see the variety in what seemed like a pretty small parcel of land in the middle of the city!
There were cucumbers, corn, a few different types of squash, at least three different varieties of lettuce, kale, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, mustard greens, peppers, pumpkins, grapes, and garlic. That wasn’t even everything in the way of edible crops.
There were also herbs and flowers; coneflower, day lilies, dill, basil, zinnias, yarrow, and marigolds. Just beautiful. In just a little corner near Lincoln Park not far from the Governor’s Mansion was all of this variety! Kind of made me feel guilty for not having put in my own garden that year. Sheetz was as gracious with his time as the land was bountiful.
“Just look at this, it takes practically nothing [to plant]!” was his proclamation to me when we got chatting about how accessible fresh ingredients can be to everybody, especially through gardening. Even in the small urban garden, variety was plenty!
Sheetz is originally from Texas, he moved to the Hudson Valley to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. His philosophy – “To buy fresh, local, and seasonal foods.”
He regularly participates in events with Nicci Cagan and others from the Chefs Consortium, spreading the word about supporting a sustainable food system.