Last night at the Greene Space, Leonard Lopate took a break from hosting his eponymous radio show on WNYC to grill some of New York’s biggest locavore icons on the growing popularity of vegetables in restaurant kitchens. If you hadn’t noticed, vegetables are hot now as the city recovers from collective heartburn after its decade-long pork-belly binge. The night was divided into three parts: a talk with Blue Hill chef Dan Barber and his main farmer, Jack Algiere; a cooking demonstration by Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli of the growing Frankies empire (including the new West Village location); and a pickling demonstration from Michaela Hayes of Crock & Jar. The first topic? Heirloom heresy.
“We think of farmers’ ideal as being the heirloom tomato varieties, but what Jack does is talk to breeders who want to focus on flavor and it’s drastically changed the way I cook,” said Barber. OK, so it’s not that controversial to use newly developed breeds of tomatoes, with an emphasis on flavor rather than longevity or color, instead of traditional heirloom varieties. But it did provide food for thought on just what this locavore movement is all about — is it about nutrients, taste, and the environment, or is it about nostalgia for an imagined past when everybody would sit around the stove with their grandmother in an idyllic Italian farmhouse?
I also learned that the Stone Barns Center grows 600 varieties of vegetables on only 5 acres of land, which is surrounded by pasture and forest, from which they harvest flowers for eating and displays. Also, adding kelp to your compost will help imbue your soil with much-needed nutrients. Who knew?
The topic then turned to winter and eating at an intensely seasonal restaurant when it’s snowing outside. Barber pointed out that dining in winter isn’t just beet soup and boiled potatoes. “The most glorious time to eat at Blue Hill Stone Barns is winter because, while the variety is much less, the flavors are much more intense. When vegetables don’t freeze, they don’t get that additional sweetness, because the starches haven’t turned to sugar.”
Then out came the Franks, who taught everybody how to cook sweet potato ravioli with wonton wrappers. Fact of the night: Frank Castronovo doesn’t know how to use a microwave. I guess that pretty much guarantees your food is going to be fresh. The pair was lovably rough around the edges and, um, as smiley as always, which is only more reason somebody should give the pair their own trippy cooking show at 2 a.m. on the Cooking Channel.
Last up was the chipper Michaela Hayes. Her pickles will soon be sold in the Lower East Side (at the Heritage Meat Shop), which is like an actor finally making it to Broadway or a baby making it to Park Slope. The point is, she’s made it.
Next up to bask in Leonard Lopate’s warm, avuncular glow: Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, Mark Bello of Pizza a Casa Pizza School, and Jessamyn Waldman of Hot Bread Kitchen, on October 5, same time, same place.