Seasons by the Sea: What Makes Local Local?

“Local Food . . . Really?”
Cat got your pumpkin? Don’t worry, there’s more where that came from, now that it’s fall on the South Fork and vegetables like cauliflower, kale, turnips, and winter squash — such as pumpkins — are in great supply. Laura Donnelly

Panels at Stony Brook Southampton’s fourth annual Food Lab conference last weekend included international chefs, activists, doctors, nutritionists, foragers, wine and spirits makers, and more, all centered around the theme “Eat Global . . . Cook Local,” a timely topic indeed.

I had the honor of moderating a panel titled “Local Food . . . Really?” and I heartily believe I had the best experts of all on the topic: Katie Baldwin, farmer and co-owner (with Amanda Merrow) of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett; Scott Chaskey, a farmer and founder and director of the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm, also in Amagansett; Dee Muma, owner of North Quarter and Centreville Bison and Long Horn Cattle Farms and of Tweed’s and Dark Horse restaurants in Riverhead, and Brian Halweil, editor in chief of the Edible East End, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan magazines. Asa Gosman, fisherman and fishmonger of Gosman’s in Montauk, was scheduled to join us but couldn’t make it back from a wedding in time. 

We began with the theme itself: “What defines ‘local’ when it comes to food? Has it become a trendy term like ‘natural’ or ‘organic?’ ” This was shut down with a slight eye roll and declaration from Mr. Halweil: “It means anything within a 150-mile radius.” 

Ms. Baldwin talked about how exciting it has been to transition from farmer to now also co-owner of the Amber Waves Farm Market, formerly Amagansett Farmers Market. She said working with the chef Jack Formica (he was previously chef for Amagansett Food Institute’s South Fork Kitchen), “we can travel the world, making dishes with Amagansett grown foods.” Ms. Muma expressed her wish that more local chefs would use the French techniques of utilizing animals “nose to tail,” saving the bones for stock, and keeping vegetable peelings and shavings for same. Mr. Chaskey reminded everyone of the importance of saving our land for agricultural use. Mr. Halweil, more of an expert than any of us, spoke eloquently on every aspect of the topic. 

It was unfortunate that Mr. Gosman couldn’t make it because “local” fish is a hugely misunderstood concept. Seafood is a $17 billion industry annually; imports make up more than 90 percent of that, and 70 percent of the tuna sold here is imported.

Florence Fabricant, the New York Times food journalist, was in the audience and piped up that she is editing the next edition of the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society cookbook and hopes to make it “salmon-free.” Brava! Ms. Fabricant had led a conversation earlier in the afternoon with Sonya Kharas, founder of League of Kitchens, and Kerrie Brodie, founder of Emma’s Torch. The League of Kitchens is a cooking school taught by immigrants in their own homes throughout New York City. Emma’s Torch is a nonprofit cooking school/restaurant that offers culinary training to refugees, many of them young women who have escaped from human trafficking situations around the world. Double brava!

When the time came for the Q. and A., Ms. Fabricant asked why  local wines are not better represented, respected, and sold in East End restaurants. This got Mr. Halweil and myself jiggling up and down on our stools like a pair of capuchin monkeys. The discussion became animated, with everyone talking about their favorite local wines, while Mr. Drummond attempted to restore order and sweep us off the stage. The final panel was about to begin, and it was about exactly that: local wines and spirits. In other words, it was a lively and passionate panel with an equally devoted and educated audience.

Which brings us to what is local now, and what to do with it. While I am not a fan of shortened days and mums make me sad, the still-warm waters of the ocean and bays, ability to get into restaurants, and cruciferous vegetables make me love September and October. It is a time when the heartier fall vegetables share the plate with the remaining corn and tomatoes. Spinach and other greens are growing again, cauliflower and broccoli are showing up, and Brussels sprouts are not far behind.

Dishes like ratatouille and caponata are perfect for combining end-of-summer produce, and they are very compatible with fish and chicken, as a pasta sauce, with cheeses as an appetizer, and they freeze beautifully. Winter squash like butternut, acorn, and delicata are everywhere, along with big and small eggplants, sweet potatoes, and Hakurei turnips. And the shishito peppers just won’t quit. Alliums like leeks and garlic are plentiful and farm chickens are laying eggs again.

The cruciferous vegetables and alliums are particularly well suited to richer ingredients like cream and gruyere cheese, or hot spices like chili flakes and harissa. With leeks, try James Peterson’s simple French preparation, manicured leeks covered in cream with salt and pepper, baked for one hour. Decadently rich and soooo good. Butternut squash is great cubed and baked with maple syrup, ginger, and rosemary. For a grand presentation make our very own Long Island cheese pumpkin stuffed with bread cubes, cheese, herbs, garlic, bacon, and a whisper of cream a la Dorie Greenspan.

As you dip your toes into fall vegetable cooking, don’t forget to start freezing corn off the cob, making pestos for the winter months, and putting up some tomato sauces. We truly can eat global and cook local.

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