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|KCMag.com:TRANSFORMING THE ELUSIVE SPRING HARVEST|
STORY AND PHOTOS by Pete Dulin
With April’s proverbial showers comes fresh produce with whimsical names like fiddleheads and ramps. Peek into the kitchen to see how local chefs work their culinary magic to transform the sometimes elusive spring harvest into a plated work of art.
Ramps, fiddleheads and radishes herald the arrival of spring. From March to May, chefs with a seasonal focus get a chance to reinvigorate their menus with the likes of asparagus, beets and stinging nettle. Seasonal dishes suggested by the chefs make limited appearances on menus based on ingredient availability and the chefs’ whims. After all, spring is a capricious season.
“I put menus together based on what I can get,” says Jennifer Maloney, executive chef at Café Sebastienne (4420 Warwick Ave.). Thankfully, the change in seasons offers a colorful array of fresh produce. “By spring, we’re tired of cooking braised brown food,” Maloney says. “In spring, we get more color on a plate and don’t do much to the food.”
For now, Maloney shelves the braising technique and sears two fillets of ruby trout on the grill and places a serving of sautéed Swiss chard and leek with petite roasted butter turnips on a rectangular white plate. She delicately sets the fillets ($15) on the bed of greens and adds a few spoonfuls of salsa verde made of herbs, capers and olive oil for a finishing touch.
For another dish, Maloney loads a tart shell with slices of roasted beet, a splash of herb pesto and a crown of fresh sheep’s cheese from Green Dirt Farm in Weston. The tart ($13.50) rests on a salad of beet greens, mizuna, mustard greens and kale from Crum’s Heirlooms, a family farm in Bonner Springs. Bright strawberries and candied pistachios complete the dish.
One of Maloney’s trademarks is the balance of sour, acidic flavors with sweetness. Diners might find strawberry Champagne vinaigrette tempered with honey, sweet-and-spicy pickled radishes, chutney for roasted chicken or mustard seed biting into the earthy sweetness of roasted beets. Sweet-tart rhubarb desserts take the form of a clafoutis or rhubarb crisp. The interplay between the flavors adds intrigue to every bite.
The spring cuisine of chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange (1924 Main St.) goes beyond his reputation for preparing delicious pork dishes. “By no means is pork all we do,” Hanna says. “We always have light meat, fish and vegetable dishes.”
Come springtime, he values the availability of radishes, baby beets, gem lettuce and assorted produce from Crum’s Heirlooms, Thane Palmberg and other local farmers. And even though up-and-down weather conditions make spring harvest a nuisance, Hanna always finds a way to harness whatever is fresh into a masterpiece.
His love of spring fare manifests as puréed pea soup ($7) with shallots and mint. Goat cheese flan and a prosciutto chip add tang and salty sweetness to clean herbal notes. Hanna also likes to prepare dishes with white turnip, beets and morels. “I forage for my morels. I get excited the most about cooking with them,” he says.
Ramps, also known as spring onions and wild leeks, have a short season. Because they cannot be cultivated, Hanna pickles the bottoms of the garlicky vegetables to extend their utility and incorporate them into dishes as inspiration strikes. “I also love to eat raw ramps, make aioli with them and grill them with other spring vegetables,” he says.
Soft-shell crab and shad roe also make brief turns on Hanna’s menus. “The availability of shad roe is volatile,” he says because the roe depends on specific temperatures and conditions for production.
Asparagus spears served as a salad ($8) in a potato nest with a poached egg is likely to earn a spot on The Rieger’s spring offerings. Also look for braised lamb with pappardelle and spring vegetables ($12) to fill a coveted menu slot.
By spring, chef Brian Aaron of Tannin Wine Bar (1526 Walnut St.) braises and smokes wintery foods less as he turns to the grill for warm weather. Heavy dressings and braised dishes yield to white wine and more delicate stock for veal, rabbit, spring lamb and other cuts of meat. Like most diners come spring, “I want lighter dishes so I don’t get bogged down,” Aaron says.
Celebrating Passover also conjures up memories of food prepared this time of year. Aaron fondly remembers meals at a friend’s house where matzo ball soup and leg of lamb was served with a light jus or the aroma of chicken liver cooked in stock. The chef draws inspiration from these fond Jewish food memories and produces dishes on Tannin’s menu that nod to his roots. “It’s one of my favorite holidays that brings together family and friends to eat and drink wine,” he says.
Aaron’s spring fare introduces grilled spring lamb ($28) with baby vegetables, French green lentils and rosemary lamb jus. Honey-glazed roasted duck breast ($24) with walnut charoset, potato latke, apple and wildflower honey reflects Jewish traditions.
Chef and owner Carl Thorne-Thomsen of Story (3931 W. 69th Terrace, Prairie Village) drifts his menu items toward the oceans for halibut, soft-shell crab and other seafood. He pairs fish and lighter meats with fresh seasonal produce to craft colorful entrées. Thorne-Thomsen plates halibut ($30) with spinach, fava bean purée and sautéed diced potato with an olive-and-crème fraiche. Morels, peas, carrot purée and gastrique complement chicken ($25) or duck for another springtime dish. The chef carefully shaves Parmesan cheese and lemon zest onto Parmesan-and-pistachio fritters sitting pretty on a creamy layer of asparagus soup. The result makes a playful presentation.
“I think of freshness during spring—I get excited,” he says about farmers now offering a bounty of locally grown vegetables and greens. It wasn’t long ago that local growers selling high-quality farm produce weren’t catering to the restaurant market, so chefs tended to source vegetables elsewhere. But now, the locovore scene has made produce we love from farmers we trust a high priority.
Undoubtedly, spring is a time of rejuvenation for both the creativity of chefs and diners seeking light, healthful dishes. Be impulsive, try new flavors and experience ingredients at their peak of freshness when they make an all-too-brief appearance in spring.
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