For all of spring and nearly the entire summer, Minnesota is such a tease: Warm days, rain and sun make for beautiful vegetable plants starting in April/May. With notable exceptions like wild ramps, greens and early bloomers like radishes and kale, the short growing season’s theme is “just wait — it’ll be ready later this summer.”
Well, I hope you’re ready. Because everything’s coming up zucchini.
“We harvested 300 pounds of zucchini last Saturday,” said Chris Rowe, executive chef at Prescotts. “We’re using a lot of it for zucchini bread, but we’re putting it into everything in the restaurant, too.”
How many ways can you use zucchini? Well, when you have 300 pounds, you use it every which way you can.
“Plank zucchini” is thinly sliced, salted and grilled as a side; shredded zucchini is put into pasta, bread and muffins, and it can be breaded and fried as an appetizer, too.
Rowe’s abundance is thanks to his own 3-acre garden, which his team first planted several years ago. “It’s lots of work, but the rewards are worth it,” he said.
The rewards come in more varieties than just zucchini, too. Rowe is putting his turnips and kale into soups; his carrots are almost ready for carrot cakes and muffins, as well as carrot-ginger soup.
“I’ll maybe go pick something tomorrow morning, bring it in, and make something with it in the afternoon,” he said.
So that makes it not only the freshest time of year — but also the most creative.
Husband-and-wife chef team Jeremy Olson and Jennifer Richards-Olson of Rainbow Café in Pine Island have culinary creativity to spare, too.
Their market menu changes as often as the crops come in this time of year, but lately they’ve been offering a T-bone steak (all meat sourced locally) rubbed in herbs and garlic and served with honey butter, roasted cauliflower, broccoli, and heirloom tomatoes. Look for the local lamb chop, too, which has recently been served with a cold cucumber, radish, and tarragon salad, or the local pork chop with strawberry balsamic glaze and served with jalapeno and white cheddar mashed potatoes.
Nearly every ingredient I just listed is locally sourced from the bounty right here in Southeast Minnesota.
“I’m pretty passionate about local ingredients and knowing your farmer,” said Richards-Olson. “What’s really exciting is that we’re getting closer to having more local produce available year-round.”
Fresh, local tomatoes in the middle of a Minnesota February? Look for them as early as next year.
In building a brand known for fresh, healthy food that’s also delicious, Nicci Sylvester at Tonic has been uncompromising in her quest for everything fresh, nearly all of it local.
“I shop the farmers market every week for the restaurant, and I work with at least 17 local farmers, too,” she said.
She says her borscht (soup) is probably packed with the most local produce like beets, onions tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, and cabbage.
“We sell a ton of salads this time of year, too, and all our greens are local,” says Sylvester. “When you pair a fresh green salad with local chicken, people are big fans.”
She’s looking forward to squash coming soon, and she just got a delivery of 30 pounds of pickling cucumbers.
There’s so many more chefs and restaurants I could cover, but just know that so many of your favorite restaurants are working with local farmers for the freshest ingredients, with more joining the mix every year, and it shows. It shows in the viability and vibrancy of our farmers market, in the creativity of local restaurant menus, and especially when you take that first bite — it shows in the big flavors that come from such freshness.