Dirt to diner
If you want local food on the menu, vote with your dollars
Back in the day, diners at even the best restaurants knew neither the name of their waiter nor that of the farmer who grew their food. Those days are thankfully gone, along with big hair and bubble skirts, hopefully never to return.
These days, one knows the provenance not just of the cheese, but of the lettuce, oil and vinegar. Having tried it both ways, I have to say that it does make me happier to see the names of my friendly farmers on the menu. (Although, as an aside, and definitely with some snark, I have to say that restaurants shouldn’t play if they’re unclear on the subject. Recently, at a chain salad bar restaurant in Vacaville, I saw a small sign proudly announcing that the shredded carrots were “local”—from the biggest agribusiness concern in Bakersfield.)
From the customer side, local produce is all roses (or, at the moment at least, escarole). Local in-season produce is fresher and tastier than anything to be had from a giant Sysco truck. From the perspective of the farmer, it’s a good deal, too—selling cases of escarole is a whole lot more cost-efficient than selling one bunch at a time.
For restaurants, however, buying local can be a challenge. Sure, many chefs are locavores. Says Mark Casale, executive chef of Dos Coyotes: “The benefits from buying more local include a tastier, healthier and more environmentally sound menu. That’s easy.”
But not everything is easy, says Mark. “It is very difficult for most restaurants to have the flexibility in their menus to take full advantage of locally grown items. In order to do so, restaurants must have constantly changing menus designed specifically around current availabilities.”
Rhonda Gruska, who sources locally for both Monticello Bistro’s stall at the Davis Farmers Market and Tastebuds Catering, agrees. “It takes more time, as you have to educate yourself and talk to farmers to find out what is available and then plan your menus around that availability. In addition, sometimes you plan a menu based on what should be in season and then Mother Nature makes other plans!”
As consumers, we play the largest role in the dirt-to-diner transaction. If we want local on our menu, we must vote with our dollars. That means not expecting—or ordering—strawberries in December. For American consumers, it’s a difficult transition. Fortunately, we have Casale to help us out: “We must know what will be becoming available locally and build our menus around that. At Dos Coyotes, we have developed recipes that can be altered slightly seasonally that can accommodate a variety of local produce. We are currently serving a mandarin pico de gallo that in the summer will be a local melon pico de gallo.”
If you can’t make it to Dos Coyotes or the Davis Farmers Market, you’ll just have to cook for yourself. That’s OK, since green garlic is here, and a dream to cook with. Clean as you would a green onion, watching out for dirt in just the first couple of layers. Throw into stir-fry, add to soup or make this quick and luscious dinner.
Green Garlic Pasta
6 stalks green garlic
8 crimini mushrooms
8 shiitake mushrooms
1 cup pasta shapes
1 cup or more grated cheese
Clean and slice green garlic into thin rounds. Wash mushrooms and slice into fat slices. Cook garlic and mushrooms together until tender, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cook macaroni to your liking and drain. Toss pasta straight into the pan with the garlic and mushrooms. Turn off heat and add salt and olive oil to taste. Stir in cheese (I use one part good parmesan, one part double-cream Gouda and two parts mozzarella) and serve.