The appeal of spring, summer and fall vegetables, with their bright colors and light textures, is an undeniable sign of freshness and bounty. Winter veggies stored away in a root cellar? Less romantic. But that doesn’t stop Columbus restaurants from employing some creativity so that you can eat local year-round.
Celeriac is one of those strange root vegetables that find their way onto produce shelves when the weather turns chilly. It has a bulbous, white-ish bottom with small roots hanging onto it and leafy celery-like stalks growing from the top. But unlike those who may be bewildered by this vegetable, also known as celery root, Rockmill Tavern Chef Jay Kleven has a secret love for it.
“We prefer more challenging roots, tubers and rhizomes,” Kleven said. “How do we get people to enjoy vegetables that are hearty and sometimes not full of flavor? How do we transform those things so we get a product that really highlights wintertime and highlights cuddling up and staying warm and that hearty feeling in your belly?”
He and the team at Rockmill recently took celeriac, covered it with beef tallow and barbecued it with Saison Noir beer and smoked shoyu. The dish turned out chewy, like meat.
Besides Rockmill, restaurants around Columbus are finding creative ways to serve fresh, savory and flavorful food with their winter produce. Motivated by a need to find the best-tasting ingredients, a drive to experiment with new recipes and a desire to support the local economy, chefs like Kleven are developing dishes their guests can indulge in for a bit of warmth this winter.
Sangeeta Lakhani, owner and executive chef of The Table, says eating locally and seasonally provides better taste, texture and nutritional value—a tomato in the summer, for example, is far superior to a tomato in the winter. It also supports Ohio farmers, who may need to find ways to sell their produce year-long.
“I don’t really know if there’s another way to eat if we want this world to survive,” Lakhani says. “You have to be more flexible with your palette and how you cook because…[farmers] have to also stay in business throughout the year, and if you stop eating what’s in season that means you’re buying stuff at grocery stores that came from wherever.”
Lakhani’s favorite ingredient to cook with in the winter is squash; she loves the different varieties with their wide range of flavors and textures. This year, she has a new seafood dish: Arctic Char with kabocha squash, apples, fennel and pickled mustard seeds. Spaghetti squash, she finds, is a convenient alternative for gluten-free noodles. Of all her dishes that showcase this gourd, at the top of her list is roasted acorn squash stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms, thyme and a sherry-sage brie bechamel. She’s experimenting with a yam or sweet potato mousse for the brunch menu, maybe with togarashi, tare and cured eggs.
Squash is a common ingredient for trial and error at Rockmill too. There, the team has been pickling, fermenting and curing all fall to get ready for a long winter. Kleven says one of their projects has been wrapping delicata, butternut and acorn squashes in a housemade butter and koji and curing them for up to a month. He has a rotating variety of squashes rolled in a miso compound topped with seasonal veggies as an alternative to a leafy salad.
Meanwhile, over at The Guild House, executive chef John Paul Iacobucci is fermenting butternut squash, which he says ends up looking and tasting a bit like mango.
“When our local farmers do come by, we try and just pick up what they have and then challenge ourselves to make whatever we can out of it,” Iacobucci said.
But winter produce is a wide umbrella. The Guild House has a seafood dish with roasted rutabaga and brussel sprout leaves. The restaurant also serves a shredded cauliflower side and pumpkin soup with enhanced sweetness and creaminess thanks to coconut milk. Rockmill has a heritage carrot dish in which they heat carrots in carrot juice with a little bit of ginger and fresh apple cider for
“When our local farmers do come by, we try and just pick up what they have and then challenge ourselves to make whatever we can out of it.”
Lakhani loves using persimmons in the winter, and she substituted them into a duck dish served with wild rice and, in the summer, peaches. She has a small plate with beets, burrata and a blood orange marmalade.
Although some winter produce might takes a little extra care and creativity to bring out its potential, and although larger tubers and squashed might need a few moments to cook down, Kleven recommends an easy and a favorite technique for all winter vegetables: roasting.
“Practice that old French method of set it and forget it,” Kleven said. “Then you develop these really complex earthy flavor palettes that you can add to whole meals as a substitute for your vegetables.”
For him, the best way to roast a vegetable like squash is, on a sheet tray without oil, to douse it in an interesting spice and a bit of salt, and set it right on the oven rack on a low heat or a long time. Iacobucci’s recommendation was even simpler: clean the seeds out, add some butter and salt and throw it in the oven. He says it goes great with pork, fish steak and chicken.
“Especially in the Midwest, people tend to use winter produce a lot more than they use summer produce. We are a meat and potato country,” Lakhani said. “People have an easier time with cooking stews and baking potatoes and sweet potato with marshmallows or whatever…they just need to expand that into adding more flavor like adding ginger or turmeric or garlic.”
Adding the right spices, Lakhani says, doesn’t mean the food needs to be spicy to get some taste buds dancing. Those curious veggies sitting on shelves and in crates could be the perfect canvas on which to experiment with some new flavors.