When the leaves on the trees turn red before the tomatoes in our gardens do, we know that the earth is experiencing a seasonal disorder. Maybe it's the effects of global warming or La Niña. Perhaps Persephone decided to stay underground a bit longer to catch up on episodes of Mad Men, goading Demeter, her fretting earth goddess mother, into keeping our part of the world wrapped in fog until her daughter hit the finale and emerged with a brighter season. Whatever the cause, let us be thankful that the June gloom that corroded into August rust lifted recently, giving us three days in a row (three!) of hot, glorious summer.
Now gardens are finally popping out tomatoes, basil, beans and other warm-season crops for local chefs to use on their menus. Yet fall fruits and vegetables, like tender lettuces, hard squashes and pumpkins, are not far behind in displaying their colors. While still using the bounty of this late summer, chefs transform themselves into ministers and take on the additional task of marrying the harvests of both summer and autumn into dishes that satisfy their own creative urges and please their customers' palates.
David Vargas, the new executive chef for Peter Lowell's in Sebastopol, originally came from the Virgin Islands. "I love this weather," he laughs, sitting on the restaurant's shady patio on a rare sweltering afternoon. "I don't expect this heat to stay that long, so as fall comes on, working with both seasons' vegetables is going to be more interesting. Marrying the two seasons is always so much fun to do, because many people are used to working with one type of ingredient. Being able to connect the two types of ingredients together is different and kind of experimental at the same time. I have to figure out what two things will work well together and actually have the customers believe that they will when you put it on the menu."
Together with owner Lowell Sheldon, Vargas creates six to 10 nightly specials from produce gathered twice weekly from the restaurant's own biodynamic farm. They have started to harvest tomatoes, kales, chard, arugula, spinach, peppers, eggplant and corn, Vargas' current favorite. "For our menu, I've created a sweet corn panna cotta dessert using ricotta to make a custard infused with a beautiful, sweet flavor," he says. "Whole corn kernels are caramelized into the base like a flan. Corn is so versatile; it can be used for savory dishes to desserts. It can be used raw or cooked, so it's a really fun thing."
The microclimates found throughout the North Bay are another factor chefs have to consider when assembling their menus. In the Napa Valley temperatures generally range a few degrees higher than in Sebastopol, so harvesting begins earlier. "It's always fun to watch new foods coming into play," says Mauro Pando, chef-owner of Grace's Table.
"The biggest trick is figuring out how to be the first one on the block to use that new fall produce when it's still really good. I think that these products are still going to be here at normal times, but we're going to have corn and tomatoes and summer squashes and eggplants and chiles a lot later than normal," Pando says. "So it's going to be very sad to see some things in the peak of their season not being used to their fullest. We're going to have to change the timeline of our menus a little more aggressively than usual."
Pando demonstrates the creativity required of a chef with a surplus of a fresh garden product that has appeared on the menu for too long. "The end-of-the-season tomatoes will be taken and turned into green tomato chutney, a fried green tomato or a pickle," he says. "We don't like to do that at the beginning of the season, because we like to hope that those big tomatoes are going to be ripened jewels that we're going to play with and use fresh."
Pando also laments the loss of the use of seasonal foods by the general public. He attributes this to the homogenous nature of large food markets, where Bing cherries or citrus from Chile share shelf space with local apples and figs. "Unfortunately, the availability of all that produce has really clouded what people think the true season of an item really is. You get green beans all year round, but they're the best when they come out of the garden right now."
Along the foggy coast, summer has dragged her feet in the dewy green fields, and Ben Angulo, chef and co-owner of Drake's Beach Cafe, welcomes the recent warmth. "Being on the coast means that a lot of the summer stuff ends up being ready in the fall," Angulo says. Some of his favored ingredients are now available, such as baby fennel from a nearby farm in Petaluma and unusual heirloom winter squashes from Nicasio. But Angulo is most excited to be including lamb he has raised on his farm on the restaurant's fall menus.
"I used to think lamb was only available in the spring, but now I know that you have to raise them until they're old enough to slaughter, which is in September or October," Angulo says. The chef will use a slaughtering facility in Occidental that's USDA certified so the homegrown products can legally be used at the restaurant, but will do the butchering himself.
"Lamb is really versatile. A lot of the fall fruits and vegetables, like pomegranates and Gravenstein apples, support and go very nicely with lamb dishes," he says. "We do a spicy lamb meatball with feta, pomegranate seeds and wilted chard as a reoccurring menu item and as an appetizer with a puréed almond sauce that's really, really delicious," he enthuses.
Angulo also waxes poetic about pomegranates, although he has trouble finding them locally. Perhaps he should use Persephone as a source. Just don't let her eat anymore of the jewel-red seeds, or the gloomy weather might linger all year long.
Peter Lowell's, 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. 707.829.1077. Grace's Table, 1400 Second St., Napa. 707.226.6200. Drake's Beach Café, 1 Drake's Beach Road, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Reservations required; 415.669.1297. BYOB.