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Forget Kale: What Farm-to-Table Restaurants Will Be Serving This Spring

By Heidi Patalano | March 21, 2013 7:04am

NEW YORK CITY — Eating locally grown produce can get a little dull by the end of winter — think kale, kale, kale and more kale.

But as local farms begin to enjoy the thaw of March, locavore restaurants will revamp their menus with crops that kick off the lively growing seasons of spring and summer.

First on the scene will be some indigenous veggies that, while plentiful, aren’t usually seen in neighborhood grocery stores.

“The weed varieties, the grass varieties — anything that grows wildly has a tendency to come up faster and that’s because it’s not really a planted varietal,” said Trevor Kunk, James Beard Award nominee and Blue Hill New York’s chef de cuisine in Greenwich Village.

While your average cook might not know what to make of green garlic, which grows wild in the Northeast, Kunk purees it with spinach, vegetable stock, parsley and a dash of lemon juice to create sauce for a fish dish.

Another item not common in Pathmark, buy often spotted in green markets, is ramps.

“Ramps — the wild leeks that come up on the spring — they’re one of the first things that say ‘yes, yes the earth is warm again and spring is here,’” said Mary Cleaver, chef and owner of The Green Table in Chelsea. She integrates the oniony green into her menu by pickling them for martinis or putting them in a potato soup.

Kunk added that stinging nettles, chickweed, fiddlehead ferns and a variety of cresses will be among the first spring veggies to make it to his restaurant, which sources most of its food from its own farms and many other sustainable farms in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley

Cherry Lane Farm, in Cumberland County, New Jersey, one of the southern-most sustainable farms that many New York City farm-to-table restaurants buy from, will be among the first to offer asparagus, most likely in the second week of April.

And even if some say global warming has made New York winters unusually short and warm, the shift can be a good thing — for spinach-lovers at least.

The daily freeze and thaw cycle of spinach grown in the northeast over this winter has forced the plants to store up extra sugars in their leaves. This creates a flavor that is markedly dynamic when compared to greens grown in temperate greenhouses elsewhere year-round.

“[The spinach] is essentially fighting for its life,” Kunk said. “Every time it thaws and then freezes again, it’s just building up massive amounts of sugar as well as incredible flavors that you can’t find anywhere else.”

These first veggies of spring are just the beginning of an active stretch of months, in which locavore restaurants feature an ever-changing influx of fresh ingredients. 

“Spring is three seasons — early, middle and late, with late bordering on early summer,” John Marsh, chef of Greensquare Tavern in the Flatiron district, explained.

Asparagus, cherries, radishes, artichokes, arugala, chard and broccoli rabe, he said, will be among the crops that begin to appear once the spring is fully underway.

“Our menu changes probably every three or four weeks, because the restaurant is a study … I don’t keep items on the menu just for the sake of seasonality," said Marsh.

"If people aren’t buying it, I move in a different direction. My job is surpassed in difficulty by the farmers themselves. They are subjected to the vagaries of weather and circumstance.”