Does eating seasonally mean hard choices?

05/06/2014 9:16 AM

05/06/2014 9:17 AM

For cooks all over the country, these are brutal days.

The winter was particularly long and especially awful. Chicago had nearly 68 inches of snow, the third-highest total on record. The polar vortex killed berry and peach crops in Illinois and Ohio.

It’s supposed to feel like spring. But the soil has been too cold to plant sweet corn in the Midwest. New Jersey asparagus is getting frostbit. Even the South is suffering. Strawberry farmers in North Carolina, which produces the nation’s fourth-largest crop, fought back an Easter freeze and a late start.

The psychological impact of winter has made the Pavlovian need for spring more intense. But there is less to offer.

“I find the week that we’re in right now and the next two the most frustrating weeks of the year,” Dan Barber said in mid-April during a break from his duties as chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan.

Some days are warm and beautiful enough to call for a glass of rose and a salad, but the fields at many farms are barren.

The longing for the tastes of spring puts special pressure on chefs like Barber, who makes his living connecting earth and dinner at his Manhattan restaurant and at Blue Hill at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

In his new book, “The Third Plate,” due out in May, Barber argues that the culinary wing of the sustainable agriculture movement needs to redefine its expectations about cooking and eating to better match the ecological realities of farming.

In the spring battleground of a restaurant kitchen, though, the fight is more practical: how to persuade diners that a spring menu, especially this year’s spring menu, is not all asparagus and strawberries.

In fact, it looks a lot like Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips. At Blue Hill, parsnips that had spent the winter underground – “the Brix,” or sugar content, “is through the roof,” he said – showed up in five of the nine dishes.

Stephanie Izard, the Chicago chef who was the first woman to win “Top Chef,” is coping with nearly 700 pounds of ramps at the Girl & the Goat and the Little Goat Diner.

“It’s like a black market for ramps here,” she said by phone. “I am sitting here looking at people sitting on the patio in 45-degree weather. We’re desperate for anything that resembles spring, so we’re all about ramps at the moment.”

Personally, she craves purple asparagus to shave into a salad and English peas, which she will put on her menu bathed in fish sauce vinaigrette, to be eaten like edamame.

“That is spring to me,” she said.

In western Massachusetts, people are eager for asparagus. Fans say the soil and weather there combine to grow the best in the country. But both Easter and Passover came and went without any.

Farmers say the season is not really late. It’s a quirk of the calendar and perception, more than the result of the heinous winter. The crop usually comes on strong by May. The past couple of years it was just extra early, said Wally Czajkowski of Plainville Farm in Hadley, Mass.

“We liked the heavy snow this year,” he said. More snow and a long stretch of cold meant water seeped slowly into the soil, building a good reserve of ground water.

The heavy snowpack didn’t help farmers like Kasha Bialas in the black dirt country of Orange County, N.Y. She has to spend extra time fluffing soil compacted by extra-heavy snow. Many crops are two to three weeks behind.

She, too, is desperate for a taste of spring. On a recent day, it was warm enough to grill outside. So she put on some shrimp, then chopped spring garlic and tarragon, the first green plants she had growing.

“It was like, finally, a real taste of spring,” she said.

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