Celebrating summer veggies
Local produce inspires chefs to get creative with their menus
Calafia chef Charlie Ayers says he always keeps an attentive eye out for the season's best when it comes to produce.
"The berries were amazing this year: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries. This season also produced great asparagus, and it was a strong year for sweet English peas," he said. "June produced wonderful peaches. You can still find some artichokes and baby lettuces out there, and the season's corn out of Brentwood was great."
Ayers has created an eclectic menu at his restaurant at Palo Alto's Town and Country Village, and the majority of the ingredients are produced in California from small farms. Only items such as the sustainable salmon from Scotland are from out of the area, he said.
"We get our berries from a Palo Alto grower who harvests them in his own backyard by Embarcadero. We get our chili peppers from Happy Quail Farms located in East Palo Alto," he said. "We get our eggs from Pescadero, tomatoes from Los Altos, and Brussels sprouts from Half Moon Bay."
Cooking with seasonal produce can dramatically influence the look, smell and the taste of food, Ayers said. "As soon as produce is plucked off the vine, the nutritional value and freshness diminish. Year-round produce can be shipped a long distance," he said. "The result is that the taste is obviously much better with seasonal ingredients; it just doesn't taste the same when you get them out of season."
Another fan of seasonal ingredients is chef Gary Alinder, who cooks meals using them for the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community every week.
"Seasonal is the best for you; it has the best nutritional value. It just makes sense because it's more interesting, it's more fresh and the flavors are better," Alinder said.
The community meets Monday nights at the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto to share a vegan menu prepared by local chefs. The themed menu changes each week.
Chef James Holloway, who also cooks for the macrobiotic community, said he does most of his shopping at farmers' markets, and enjoys getting to know the vendors. "You can't build relationships like that at the grocery store."
Alinder said he remembers a time when local, seasonal produce was the only thing you could get at the market.
"It used to be that farmers brought in everything from peas, alfalfa, squash, fruits and so on. Then with the advancement of huge, mechanized agriculture, that died down and we had monoculture, or specialization of just one or two different types of produce," he said.
At Calafia, the menu changes four times a year, with new dishes introduced each season. "It's very special to try to use ingredients within a small window. You have a limited time to come up with a creative item," Ayers said.
He added that buying seasonal can be kinder on the environment because the food doesn't have to travel as far — an idea that has been enshrined in the burgeoning "locavore" movement.
"It's better for the local community and the environment as well because of the reduced carbon footprint," Holloway said. "Food doesn't have to travel across entire oceans just to get here."
For those who aspire to use seasonal ingredients to try for themselves, Ayers recommends Palo Alto's California Avenue farmers market and Sigona's produce markets in Palo Alto and Redwood City.
Alinder said he frequently shops at the Berkeley Bowl for his ingredients. The market carries many items but specializes in fresh produce, he said. He has created a blog at macrochef.wordpress.com with information and recipes.
Info: Calafia Cafe and its adjoining market are at Town & Country Village, Suite 130, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. Go to calafiapaloalto.com or call 650-322-9200. The Peninsula Macrobiotic Community holds dinners every Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church, 305 N. California Ave., Palo Alto. Reservations are requested; for details, call 650-599-3320 or go to peninsulamacro.org.
The following recipes are from Charlie Ayers, and are currently on Calafia's spring/summer menu.
Calafia's corn and kale saute
4 cups lightly blanched white corn
12 cups dinosaur kale
3 tablespoons California olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Place four cleaned, whole ears of white corn into 1.5 gallons of boiling salted water. Remove after two minutes, place into a bowl of salted ice water. Once corn is completely cool, remove it from the water and dry. Stand corn on the stalk end of the cob, run a knife down each side of the cob to remove kernels, and place them in a bowl.
2. Thoroughly wash the kale, spin dry and remove stems. (Stems can be used by cutting into small, corn-kernel size). Roll the kale leaves into a big cigar, and cut into ribbon-sized slices or chiffonade.
3. Heat olive oil in a large or medium non-stick saute pan. Just before the oil begins to smoke, add kale and saute for a minute or two before adding in the corn. Cook just until everything is heated through, and season with salt and pepper. Serve with olive oil and lemon.
Calafia's minty English peas with butter and garlic
6 cups freshly shelled sweet English peas (about 4 pounds)
4 tablespoons unsalted organic butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons chiffonade of mint leaves
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1. Blanch peas in 12 cups of boiling salted water; once water returns to a boil, cook for one minute, turn off heat and let sit for one minute. Strain peas and transfer into a bowl of iced salted water. Once peas are fully cooled down, drain well. This step can be done a day in advance.
2. Preheat olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan, then add butter. Allow butter to lightly bubble before adding in the peas, and saute on medium heat for one minute. Add garlic, cook for another minute and add in mint and salt and pepper.
3. You may want to add grated Parmesan cheese at the end.
Calafia's grilled asparagus salad
1 pound medium to small asparagus, bottom portions removed, and bottom third of the the stalk peeled
2 small heads of baby frisee, washed and spun dry, tough leaves removed
6 Easter egg radishes, thinly sliced on a Japanese mandolin
1 bunch fresh chives, cut into 1/4-inch-long batons
4 tablespoons California olive oil
9 tablespoons Eureka lemon juice
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Preheat grill or panini press.
2. Mix 1 tablespoon of olive oil with salt and pepper and reserve to drizzle over asparagus.
3. Whisk together remaining olive oil and lemon juice to make a simple vinaigrette. You can add minced shallots and Dijon mustard, if you'd like.
4. Toss the frisee, chives and radishes in a stainless-steel bowl with two-thirds of the vinaigrette and salt and pepper.
4. Grill the asparagus for a minute on each each side, place on top of tossed frisee salad and drizzle the rest of the vinaigrette over the asparagus. Serve warm.
5. Optional: Add a couple of sliced heirloom tomatoes.