Enlivened Winter Menus on Cape Cod
February 2009 — Icy winter winds have swept Cape Cod free of tourists and summer residents, and have sent most local restaurants and farms into hibernation. But the frigid weather hasn’t stopped Jerome Watkins — executive chef at Mac’s Shack, an upscale bistro in Wellfleet, in summer, and at Willy’s Gym in Eastham in winter — from searching out and using local produce. Watkins, whose career includes stints at acclaimed restaurants in cities from Pittsburgh to New York City to Boston, has been in Wellfleet, out near the tip of the Cape, for just a year. But he has already cultivated relationships with a network of local farmers.
Watkins recently spoke with Seasonal Chef about his adventures with local wintertime cuisine on Cape Cod.
“Everybody thinks it’s hard getting local stuff this time of year. A lot of places will close. But we have found several farmers who grow things in the winter. We use Tim Friary, in Barnstable. Another farmer named Julie has phenomenal shiitake mushrooms in the summer. She wanted to get into doing more things in the winter, so she got what she thought were turnip seeds, but it happened to be kale. So she had this phenomenal organic purple kale, which she didn’t know what to do with.
“She told me it was the best kale she had ever seen. When she brought it in, it was just phenomenal. It had like a foot long stem. We trimmed the stems off and made stock with it, and then we used the leaves as a vegetable.
“At the last Slow Food dinner, we paired the purple kale with venison shanks. We did the kale Italian-style. We slow-braised it for about 30 minutes with pancetta bacon, heirloom garlic, cracked black pepper and red pepper flakes. For the next dinner, I wanted to take a different direction, so I made a really nice vegetarian purple kale soup. I made a stock with white mirepoix, and the kale stems and some aromatics, and let that simmer for about an hour. It had a really nice fragrance to it. I let the kale greens steep in there. Then we strained it. We also roasted organic red and yellow tomatoes. And we had some just-dug potatoes from Farmer Tim that we roasted with extra-virgin olive oil, thyme, rosemary, and savory. We served the roasted tomatoes and potatoes in a bowl with the wilted kale from the broth and a handful of julienned kale that we added raw just before we poured the hot broth over it. That soup was our first course. It was a big hit. A lot of people enjoyed that.
“We have had a lot of fun with the purple kale. It is neat because it is one of those leafy winter vegetables, and so the more frost and the colder it is, the firmer it gets and the more flavor it has. And what’s neat is, it doesn’t get bitter.
“During these dinners, it’s a whole new thing. It’s like wintertime cuisine. We have a lot of fun with it and make a lot of contacts and develop a strong relationship with farmers I didn’t know.
“I am actually working with the farmers now on things we would like to see in the coming months. When I was in New York, I worked at Esca, which was one of Mario Batali’s restaurants. Working with farmers was one of the things that was really big with him. He brought a lot of seeds from Italy, and he had a farmer on Long Island plant them. That way, he could have a lot of things available.
“That’s something that I am doing now. I am working with some of the farmers I’ve just met and we are developing lists for April, May and June, which are some of the tougher months when things are not quite as plentiful. One of the things we are working on for spring is ramps. And white asparagus, plum tomatoes, and English peas. And rhubarb is fantastic that time of year. We will have fun with that.”