Spring is finally in bloom. Delicious local produce is sprouting up on restaurant menus -- not to mention on the forest floor.
The best thing about Mother Nature's supermarket is that it's free. In fact, the wild leeks near my home often make it into my customer's mouths.
As an executive chef at four restaurants -- Terra and Sarpa in Richmond Hill, Francobollo in Toronto, and Rusty's in Collingwood -- I can't possibly handpick every vegetable. But I can handpick the men and women who culled my greens. Spring allows me to start thinking fresh. Fresh, local ingredients... and fresh, seasonal twists on favourite dishes.
The farm to table approach is a winner in my kitchens. I like to know where my food comes from, who produces it and how it's produced. I rely on a carefully-selected group of vendors for our meats and vegetables. But nothing beats finding your culinary delights instead of buying them.
The adventurous can find unbeatable flavour straight from the ground in Ontario's lush woodlands. For example, right behind my house is the Georgian Trail, and 10 feet in is an abandoned orchard with a huge patch of wild leeks (they look like a stubby green onion). I can basically supply all of my restaurants; all I need is my pocketknife and time to dig them up.
For foraging beginners, a word of advice: be cautious.
Forest rummaging is a favourite pastime in my family. Dinner ingredients are only a hike away -- from leeks and fiddleheads (the furled fronds from a young fern) to exotic morels (mushrooms!). Hiking up the escarpment, we regularly scour for the latter two veggies. And our dinner plates and taste buds are richer for it.
When my dogs, kids and spouse join in, it's a family occasion. My youngest Sawyer, two, makes the trek in a baby carrier on his mom's back. But Ruby, at age five, uses her own tiny feet. The forest is full of magic, from tickling trout to eccentric insects, and there's a romance to searching for ingredients that weren't delivered to your backdoor. It almost feels like a spiritual quest for me -- the sense of being one with nature, and taking food from the earth's unharvested soil.
Every chef I know loves the idea of foraging -- even if most don't often have the time (running a kitchen is much more than a full-time job!). For foraging beginners, a word of advice: be cautious. You need to do your research and know what you're looking for.
Case and point, one kind of fiddleheads will make you sick, and picking mushrooms is a delicate art because some varieties are poisonous. But armed with knowledge, the right fresh, wild ingredients are ripe for the taking.
Wild leeks, for example, can be used in soups, or poached in butter and thrown on the grill, or turned into a pesto and and served with fish -- one of my regular ways of serving trout on the Terra menu.
That said, foraging isn't a realistic food base for my restaurants. I can only pick enough mushrooms to feed my own little brood. But my kitchens' shitake mushrooms come from Blackshire Gardens in Maxwell, Ont. The owner goes out in the morning and cuts them right off the log and into the box.
I get the majority of my seasonal produce from Roy'L Acres Farm, a 100-acre family farm in Grey Highlands, Ont., surrounded by Mennonite farms. This year we're planning my spring-summer menus week-by-week and month-by-month. My side dishes, salads and all-round ingredients will be shaped by what's in season -- by what's ripe on the vine, or ready to be harvested. The same goes for my game and fish. I get my trout at Kolapore Springs, an all-natural, sustainable organic hatchery that, since 2009 has been producing some of the best trout you can find anywhere. In fact their trout is so good it was featured at The David Suzuki Foundation's 20th Anniversary Legacy Gala.
Next month brings a new challenge. I'll be returning to battle in the kitchens at the Memphis in May International Festival. This year I am representing the Canadian BBQ society in the World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest. We'll be going whole hog. Literally. We plan on serving up an original combination, with every piece of our pig prepared with a different flavour profile. The shoulders will have Asian flavours, spiced by the likes of lemongrass and coconut milk, while the belly will taste like a classic Southern barbeque.
Admit it. Your taste beds are watering, right? Well, they'll water while cooking your forest-floor vegetables, too. (OK, maybe not as much).
The call of the kitchen is my loudest siren song, but increasingly it competes with the call of the wild. I'm lucky to be able to combine my two passions. Foraging for some of my own food gives me more appreciation for the animals and vegetables I use in my own kitchens. Go "shopping" in Mother Nature; take a walk on the wild side. You'll never look at food the same way again.
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