Local Chefs

Compiled by Allison Croat

While we here are Inspire(d) love cooking local, visiting the Farmers Market, and, of course, eating, we’re no experts (well, except maybe for the eating part). So we asked five regional chefs to give us THEIR local food expertise, first with these three questions:

1. What do you love about cooking locally in the Driftless Region?

2. Do you have a favorite local summer ingredient? Why? (Note: Wow, do these folks LOVE tomatoes!)

3. What’s the first question you would ask your farmer at the local farmer’s market?

And then we requested a favorite summer recipe to share with you all. We know our mouths are watering. How about yours? Season’s Eatings!

Justin Scardina
La Rana Bistro & Driftless Food & Catering • Decorah, Iowa

1. Well I have been cooking in the Driftless Region for nearly 10 years now and I cannot explain enough how gifted we are with all these fantastic farmers and ranchers who produce AMAZING products each and every season. I would have to say that our produce and products rival that of California and other warmer weather climates. Granted no one is growing citrus but I do know one farmer that will have fresh ginger this year! Also every year brings in more and more farmers growing more diverse crops…. fresh sprouts, heirloom everything, mixed greens year-round! I love this region so much that I named my catering company Driftless Food & Catering.

2. I guess I really can’t narrow it down further than the nightshade family, which contains tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, etc….  Those are the real bounty of the summer months. Plus the whole family is made to be cooked together…and who doesn’t love tomatoes and potatoes?

3. Usually the first question is what is good today/what is new? All the farmers are always trying new seeds and crops and the season for some items comes and goes in a blink of an eye. Usually tomatoes are only around for maybe a month but last year I was still buying tomatoes in late September because of the wonderful weather.

Sicilian Caponata
I thought since I talked up the nightshade family so much I’d feature Sicilian Caponata, basically a sweet-sour eggplant dish. This can be served hot, room temp, as a side, over rice as a main or on top of a bruschetta

1 eggplant, large Italian globe variety, cut into a 1/2″ dice
4 tomatoes, cut into 1/2″ dice
1 large sweet onion, cut into 1/2″ dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 T capers, rinsed
5T Parsley, finely minced
3T Basil, chiffonade
1/4 C Red wine vinegar
4T sugar, or honey
1 C Good Olive oil
Salt
Pepper

In a large sauté pan, heat 1/2 c of olive oil over medium heat. Add Eggplant and sauté until soft and slightly brown, about 5-8 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve in a bowl. Using the same pan, sauté over medium heat the onions and garlic until soft, about 4 minutes. Add tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring every so often. After the tomatoes have released their juices, add the eggplant back into the pan and continue over low heat for 10-15 minutes. Add red wine vinegar, sugar, oil and capers and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring every once in a while. Add parsley and basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes great leftovers!

Stephen Larson
Quarter/quarter Restaurant • Harmony, Minnesota

1. Since my wife Lisa grows organic produce for QUARTER/quarter on our farm, I would have to say the thing I love most about cooking locally is our soil. Our area is blessed with some of the richest soil in the world, and if we care for it as Mother Earth intends, it will reward us with spectacular produce for generations to come.

2. My favorite summer ingredient has to be heirloom tomatoes. They offer such a diversity of colors, flavors and textures that make then so versatile in the kitchen. Since my culinary focus at the restaurant is globally inspired comfort food, heirloom tomatoes offer an abundance of inspiration because they are very important to many ethnic cuisines.

3. The first question I ask from a purveyor at a farmers market is; “How did you get into this business?” The stories you get in response are fascinating and often unexpected.

“Panzanella” – Tomato and Bread Salad
Makes 4 entrée size or 6 side dish size servings

For the croutons:
4 cups 1-inch diced bread cubes (crustless, cut from a sturdy loaf)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Preheat an oven to 350º F. Put the bread into a mixing bowl and drizzle the oil over the top. Mix well to coat. Spread the bread cubes out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Leave out at room temperature to cool until needed.

For the dressing:
1 small clove garlic
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup shredded fresh basil

Peel and mince the garlic. Sprinkle the salt over it and grind into a paste using a smearing motion with the flat of a wide bladed knife. Put the paste into a large mixing bowl with the oil, vinegar, and pepper. Whisk to blend. Stir in the basil and set aside until needed.

For the salad and to finish the dish:
2 cups large diced ripe heirloom tomatoes (a mixture of colors is nice)
1 1/2 cups finely chopped any one, or mixture of: bell peppers, fennel bulb and/or cucumbers
Dressing
Croutons

Toss everything together and mix well to coat croutons. Leave at room temperature, stirring often, for 30 minutes, then serve.

Tom Skold
Albert’s Restaurant/Tap Room, Hotel Winneshiek • Decorah, Iowa

1. I like the seasonal aspects of cooking in this neck of the woods. The dramatic change of seasons makes people get hungry for certain foods.  It’s an anticipatory thing – once it starts getting warmer outside people start asking for things like cold cucumber soup . . . in the autumn they might start thinking about sauerbraten. They’re living ahead of the seasons, and that adds a certain tension to the air and it shows up in their appetites.

2. Corn is my favorite because it is something I absolutely do not eat unless it’s fresh and local. I love to boil the cobs and make a broth of them for soup once I’ve trimmed the kernels out. For instance I might add sweet and hot green and red peppers and tortillas, etc. to the soup. The things that we enjoy exclusively locally tend to become our favorites.

3. What do you think you’ll have ready next week? And I always ask about varieties (in a nerdy sort of way), especially if I haven’t used a particular one before. There are so many tomatoes, for instance, of varying colors and flavors to choose from. I tend to use flavor profiles and combinations that have spent years in my repertoire – I recombine and find deeper places for them in my cooking. It’s an evolutionary process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve combined something like bleu cheese and sage, bleu cheese and walnuts, cherry vinegar and the sweet nightshades . . ..

Italian Potato Salad with Fresh Mint
3 lbs. new potatoes, cooked, cooled, quartered
1/2 red pepper, fine diced
1/4 C capers, rinsed, drained
1/2 large red onion, diced fine
2 T fresh mint leaves, chopped fine

Vinaigrette:
1/4 C white balsamic vinegar
3/4 C extra virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Mix together potatoes, red pepper, capers, red onion, parsley and mint. In another bowl mix together vinegar, olive oil, and garlic for the vinaigrette. Season the dressing to taste. Dress the potato mixture with the vinaigrette, then adjust the seasonings after taste-testing a potato.

Tessa Leung
Sontes Restaurant • Rochester, Minnesota

1. The wide variety of vegetables and fruits the land and soil can support is amazing. From hot hot peppers to cool cucumbers to tender juicy lettuce leaves… it is almost like a different present is available at the Farmers Market every week.

2. Tomatoes!!!! There is nothing tastier then a tomato that is picked fresh and warm from the sun. They can be delicate, or bold, juicy or dry… their versatility is endless too. Raw, canned, salsa, sauce, salads, stuffed, soups, juiced, deep-fried or grilled… the possibilities are endless… and good for you too!

3. What is the best way to store this item, how long will it usually keep, and of course do you have any special way you like to prepare your produce?

Chef Bryce Lamb’s Thai Omelet with Summer Vegetables
1 large egg
1 tsp fish sauce
2 garlic chives, minced
2 T. butter
1 pinch sugar
(Makes one omelet)

Whisk egg, sugar, fish sauce and chive until well mixed. Heat omelet pan, add butter and let melt. Once butter is melted pour egg mixture evenly into pan. Cook until egg mixture is set and has a nice light golden color. Remove and let chill on a plate in the fridge. Repeat process until you have made the number of thin omelets you desire. (Omelets will hold for about two days covered in fridge). Fill with desired vegetables and roll up like a fruit roll up.

For the filling, you can use an assortment of vegetables from the farmers market such as radishes, baby carrots, bok choy, cabbage and/or leaf lettuce. For crunchier vegetables such as carrots, blanch in boiling water and then shock in an ice water bath. Radishes can be thinly sliced. You can also mix an assortment of summer vegetables into a salad and toss with light dressing of citron vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper before inserting into the omelet roll up.

Gina Prange
People’s Food Co-op & Hackberry’s Bistro • La Crosse, Wisconsin

1. I?love cooking for the Co-op deli because I?have the freedom to choose the freshest ingredients. We have a brilliant organic produce manager, Roger Bertsch, who has established long-term relationships with several local farmers and producers that has resulted in a wealth of quality produce available to us. I?love cooking for a receptive audience; our members know the importance of and appreciate great food!

2. Locally grown, just-picked heirloom tomatoes – any kinds… all kinds…Sun Gold, Brandywine, Amish Paste, and so many more. Seed Savers Seed Exchange in Decorah has an infinite variety of tomato varieties. The taste difference, I think, is really striking between the complex flavor blast and refined texture of an in-season tomato and a mealy, hard, off-colored, out-of-season one. Tomatoes are so versatile too, from ratatouille to BLTs to a thick slice with only balsamic, salt, and pepper, they are as easy or as complicated as you want them to be.

3. What’s especially good right now?

Quinoa Salad with Asparagus &?Cherry Tomatoes
2 cups quinoa, cooked – rinse quinoa first. Bring it to a boil in 5 cups of water and allow it to boil for about eight minutes. Drain the water off and return it to the pot. Cover it and let it sit off the heat for about 10 minutes.

Prepare as directed and toss together:
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1-1?2 cups fresh asparagus, cut in 1-inch pieces and blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes, drain, and rinse cold
1?2 cup red onion, diced
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 cup toasted almonds
1 cup crumbled feta (leave out for vegan option)
1?2 cup fresh basil, julienne
1?2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1?4 cup fresh mint, julienne

Whisk together until emulsified:
1?2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of one lemon
1?4 cup red wine vinegar
1?2 T. black pepper
1 t. salt
1T. fresh garlic, minced

Toss everything together and dress. So easy, so fresh – enjoy this perfect summer dish!

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