A ‘Community Centered’ Menu in the Dead of Winter in Vermont
February 2009 — Just about everything on the menu at Claire’s was produced on farms within a 15-mile radius of Hardwick, a northern Vermont village with a population of 3,200, just 35 miles, as the crow flies, south of the Canadian border. The town, like thousands of other rural communities across America, has been beaten down by the loss of jobs and population over the last several decades.
“I have quite an array of root vegetables that were grown over the summer and into the fall, and I am drawing on those until spring….They are in cold storage but they are just as beautiful as when they came out of the ground.”
But Hardwick has recently gotten attention from the national press for finding a way to pick itself back up – by revitalizing locally-oriented agriculture and food enterprises. As the New York Times put it in a recent article, local residents are “betting on farming to make Hardwick the town that was saved by food.”
A local nonprofit called the Center for an Agricultural Economy has helped incubate and promote a number of local food-related businesses, ranging from a cheesemaker to a manufacturer of whey-based wood finish, which have created as many as 100 new jobs in town in the last couple of years. Claire’s Restaurant and Bar is at the center of Hardwick’s food-based revival. Launched in May 2008 by an eclectic group of four partners — who are chronicling the birth and growth of their restaurant on a blog — Claire’s is helping the local economy by highlighting local produce and artisan food products on its menu.
One of the co-proprietors, Steven Obranovich, a chef who trained in kitchens from San Francisco to Strasbourg, France, before settling in Hardwick about five years ago, recently spoke with Seasonal Chef about how he meets the challenge of serving locally produced food year round in a region known for long, hard winters.
Q: How do you manage to maintain your commitment to serving locally produced food in the dead of winter in northern Vermont?
A: Actually, there is a period of time during the year when there is absolutely nothing growing here in the Northeast Kingdom. That is just a fact of life for us. But one of our secrets is that the farms that have planned ahead — and there are quite a few around here these days — are doing something that has been done for generations, which is cold storage. So I have quite an array of root vegetables that were grown over the summer and into the fall, and I am drawing on those until the new things become available in the spring. Everything from rutabagas and onions and garlic and five different varieties of turnips, and like five different varieties of carrots, and at least a dozen varieties of potatoes. They are in cold storage but they are just as beautiful as they were when they came right out of the ground.
Q: Rutabagas aren’t something that most Americans ordinarily eat. What do you do with rutabagas?
A: We make a really fantastic soup with rutabagas and another cold storage item, apples. We have been running that off and on at the restaurant. It has onions and garlic and locally sourced cream, and we serve it with great cheddar crisps from Vermont Milk Company, which is less than a mile from the restaurant, and some smoked paprika oil on top. Rutabagas also play a role in the vegetable pot pie and vegetable tagine that are on the menu now. So that’s where rutabagas come into play.
Q: In the five years that you’ve been in Vermont, have you noticed an increase in availability of locally produced foods in the winter in response to demand from restaurants like Claire’s that are committed to buying locally?
A: Absolutely. But it’s not just restaurants that are sparking the trend. People in their own communities are becoming more attuned to the local food movement and are creating demand from farmers. There are farmers markets that are now going year-round, even in the dead of winter, where they are doing exactly what I was talking about with cold storage crops that they are selling to the public that is starving for those types of items.
The Welcome Sight of Sprouts
Q: The Hardwick community seems to be quite well educated about seasonal cuisine, judging from some of the recent press reports about the thriving local food scene in the area. But do you still encounter clueless customers at Claire’s who expect tomatoes in February?
A: We do, but I would say that nine times out of 10, it is not the local customer but an out-of-town customer who, for instance, with their burger would like a bit of lettuce and tomato in the month of January. We apologize to them and tell them that we have some local sprouts that are amazing and are green. One of the great things we have is lots of folks who do sprouts of all different varieties. They do it throughout the year, but particularly at this time of year. We use them as garnish but they also figure prominently in a salad we serve with carrots, black radishes, pistachios, blue cheese and a cider mustard vinaigrette. We also add them to the baked fusilli and sheep’s cheese in their natural form, and in the form of a pesto, as well. When there’s so much snow on the ground, anything that is green is a wonderful sight for sore eyes and a harbinger of spring, which is just around the corner. Sprouts get us through this time of year when people are so hungry for something green, and there just isn’t anything out there. Sprouts are a great thing.
Q: What is some of the earliest local springtime produce that you are looking forward to serving in your restaurant?
A: There is a farmer by the name of Pete Johnson who is in the neighboring town of Craftsbury. Pete’s Greens is the name of his farm. He actually last week put in his first crop – greenhouse, of course – of mesclun greens, and those are going to be available probably in about three weeks I will have the first of the season greens coming from him before the end of March, so that’s very exciting.