Shane Coffey, the chef at Alias, a 44-seat restaurant on Clinton Street, has a bit of a strawberry obsession. “I’ve been waiting all year for them,” he says as he strolls through the Greenmarket in Union Square. At Yuno’s Farm’s stand, he picks up his usual spring onions and a big bag of salad greens. A spiky-leafed red spinach intrigues him. Popping a leaf into his mouth, he declares it similar to chard. It is earthy tasting and quite eye-catching. He gathers a few handfuls and says “We’ll do something with these tonight.” There are no strawberries in sight. Coffey inquires about when they’ll arrive and is visibly pained to learn that he actually missed some of the season’s first offerings that very morning. “No!” he cries. The woman offers to hold some, out of sight, for him next time.
Coffey has been pining for the berries with a specific creation in mind. Last spring, Alias’ loyally seasonal menu featured a salad of strawberries, ricotta, capers, and watercress—a combination that wouldn’t occur to most of us, but as it turns out, an utterly pleasing balance of flavors and textures. If he were on a reality show like Top Chef, this might be called his “signature dish.”
Of course, if he wants, the chef can walk across the street and buy as many strawberries as he desires at Whole Foods, where they’re currently on display right in the entrance way. There is a special on “conventional” (not organic) strawberries, and the organic ones are right nearby. Both varieties come from California. But purchasing these would be cheating. Even if Coffey didn’t care about the environmental effects of transporting the berries across the country, he wouldn’t be tempted. The strawberries he waits so patiently for are deep red (capable of staining your lips), small, and sweet—the flavor concentrated and pronounced. The conventional ones at Whole Foods, from Driscoll’s Farm, are big and range from watery to almost tart. Some of them are deceptively dark on the outside, but inside they’re light and firm.
May has been declared by various organizations as National Bike Month, Mental Health Month, Clean Air Month, Older Americans Month, National Barbecue Month, and Asian Pacific Americans Month. But a group in San Francisco called Locavores has proposed a more intriguing theme to kick off spring: eating locally all month long. The idea that buying organic isn’t enough is becoming as well-known to foodies as environmentalists. Organic foods are grown without the use of pesticides and other chemicals, which is good for the earth, but many of the organic brands we’re familiar with from the supermarket are located far away. The environmental cost of transporting them across the country (fuel emissions) is probably more harmful to the environment than purchasing non-organic food that was grown nearby. But an easier motivation is this: food that has been picked fresh and ripe tastes better than food picked early so it is firm enough to survive a road trip.
Shopping at the farmer’s market several days a week is something of a luxury—most working adults can barely manage grab some food on the way home. But even if this challenge is an impossible one, knowing where the food you buy comes from is a good idea. Though New York’s Whole Foods stores are dramatically lacking in local produce, they at least practice full disclosure: the origins of the produce are displayed for every item. There is rhubarb from Holland, purple artichokes from California, sugar snap peas from Guatemala, Papayas from Belize, tomatoes from Canada and Florida, and so on.
But knowing what’s in season and making some effort to experience it is a worthwhile practice. About those melons from Costa Rica—if you have your mind set on tropical fruit year-round, you might miss out on discovering red spinach from New Jersey. Coffey returned to his kitchen to tinker with the new-found leaves, and came up with a salad pairing the spinach with radish leaves, sautéed green garlic and red onions, a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice, and shaved radishes on top. “I think we’ll run this for a while,” he said. Meanwhile, those hidden strawberries will finally be waiting for him at Union Square.