Four years ago, Gotham Bar & Grill chef Alfred Portale decided to celebrate summer with Greenmarket to Gotham, a weekly prix fixe lunch sourced almost entirely from the Union Square Greenmarket. Spotlighting seasonal ingredients allows Portale to highlight a different local farmer every week for 12 weeks, June through August. These summer lunches follow a strict vegetarian diet; each dish hinges on fresh fruits and vegetables, without leaning on meat for substance.
Four years into the program, Portale realized he had been stockpiling recipes, each with its own story. “We had all these great dishes, many were well documented,” the chef says. “So the idea was, why not put together this recipe journal and tell the story of the farms [we were featuring]?” Portale published Greenmarket to Gotham Recipe Journal this spring, a vegetarian cookbook with 36 recipes featuring produce from Union Square Market and lots of local lore. The book is available for $22 via Gotham Bar & Grill’s website, and you can feel great about buying it: Ten percent of sales go to GrowNYC, which supports greenmarkets around the city.
In the interview that follows, we chat recipes (spoiler alert: he gets reeeaaally specific on the White Peach Salad pictured above), new restaurants, the farm-to-table craze and yes, the cronut.
What are a few of your favorite recipes in book?
It’s hard for me to say because I selected the recipes. I like some of them for their simplicity. The strawberry and arugula salad is so easy to make and just very impressive. We celebrate the tomato season each year, and we’ve got a lot of tomatoes represented in the book. There’s a peach salad. I think that is a really fun recipe. If I’m cooking at home on the weekends, the idea of doing a stone fruit salad is not all that new, but it works so well together, it’s impressive.
Do you have favorite summer/fall ingredient?
I love all the stone fruits. Starting with cherries, moving into apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums; they play a big role in the menu here at Gotham, and they show up a bit in the journal. But I really, really like using those. We have a seared foie gras that we’re doing with a roasted nectarine, and we have a pork dish that utilizes white peaches in sort of a spicy peach chutney, so I dig that. I also love corn; who doesn’t? Corn is something I really truly look forward to. There’s some great corn soup on the menu at Gotham, and one in the journal, and then tomatoes.
When you go to the Greenmarket, is there a particular farmer or stand that you always try to visit?
All 12 farms that are represented in the book. I take the subway from the Upper East Side, and I get off at Union Square. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I walk through the market. I start at one end, and I just do a loop. When my chefs go, they’re going for a very specific purchase. I like to see everything and be inspired and make sure we’re using as much as we can from the market, but we tend to buy from at least 15 or more farms on a regular basis. Some farms we’ll buy just one ingredient from, whereas others have lots of products that we use.
What’s freshest, most beautiful and bountiful, at this moment in early August?
The tomatoes are now in full swing. We buy mostly from Eckerton Hill [Farm, at Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays], but a lot of people have tomatoes. The jury’s out on how great of a season it is; the season started late, and for that reason, it may have affected the crops. What we’re getting now are really outstanding tomatoes. There are a number of baby beautiful yellow and green summer squash, all different shapes and sizes, that are really sweet and delicious. On the weekends I just slice them thickly with olive oil and grill them. Sometimes we’ll do a pan-roast, other times we’ll thinly slice them, steam them, and use them in a warm vinaigrette. And lots of plums. There are tons of plums in the market. And there’s really nothing better for me than a perfect peach.
What are the limitations of farm-to-table cooking?
The only limitation is that not everybody is near a farmer’s market. They’re spread out all over the city, and it certainly takes a little time and may not be convenient for everyone to shop the markets; that’s maybe the only limitation that I can think of.
And the strength, compared to cooking food sourced from the grocery store produce aisle?
[Greenmarket sourcing] forces you to cook what is in season. Something that is grown locally with some care on a small farm is typically going to be fresher, tastier, and probably less expensive than something that was shipped halfway around the world. That’s one reason why it’s intelligent and why it works. And we can go on about why we need to support these [farmers], because they’re not these huge factory farms; these people have very interesting stories, and we need to support them. But if you’re careful and you know what’s in season, I think you can do pretty well in a respectable supermarket.
Opine, if you would, on the prevalence of farm-to-table cooking as a culinary trend.
To me, this is nothing new, it’s how I’ve always cooked. When I was training in France, we were in the countryside, and just about everything we cooked was brought by a grower or a forager or somebody local. [But here now,] people are more aware and more conscious, and they care about what they’re putting into their bodies. I have friends up in Connecticut that grow all their own food–they raise pigs and grass-fed beef, and they have their own chickens, and there’s a lot of people who care about where stuff comes from. So I think it’s all good. Maybe people are patting themselves on the back for buying locally, and that’s a hook for them, but I think it’s great.
Which season do you enjoy most in terms of the food?
It’s hard to say, because there’s so much I love about spring, late summer, and fall. Winter is hard. I have to change the way I think about cooking in the winter, say, from February and March. I certainly love the holidays around Christmas. But I guess I would say fall. It’s a season I like very much; I grew up in upstate New York with the very pronounced seasonal change–all the leaves are changing, maybe you light your fireplace for the first time–and I dig that and all the great stuff that comes with it: the late-season winter squash, cabbage, cauliflower, apples, and all that stuff.
How has industry and cuisine changed since you entered the business 30 years ago?
There’s been an enormous change, absolutely enormous on all levels. The style of restaurant has changed dramatically. Back when I started, the three-star restaurants were all mainly French, they were all very formal, the waiters wore tuxes, and the maitre d’ was focused on a very formal experience. When I came on the scene and got three stars, it was Brian Miller in the New York Times, and it was revolutionary in a way, because here we were, a relatively casual restaurant, very democratic door policy, pro-guest, no attitude, and we got three stars.
For chefs, it’s a pleasure now given all the choices we have to cook with. Thirty years ago, forget it. There was very little to choose from. You couldn’t even get wild mushrooms, for God’s sake. So things have changed dramatically in the food supply. Lastly, I think, the customer is more appreciative and also more demanding, and that’s a good thing, too.
What are a couple newer NYC restaurants (opened in last couple years), that you keep going back to?
I was at the Elm last week, and that’s very new, and I hope to return there very soon. Pearl and Ash. I’ve been there two or three times, and I’m a big fan of the style of cooking: There are a lot of small plates, and they have a fantastic wine list. It’s really amazing–I can drink lots of wine with age, and it’s priced quite reasonably. I love ABC Kitchen. I’ve been there probably 20 times. Dan Kluger is a great chef, and the place is beautiful, and there’s a really hot crowd, so I go there a lot. [For] sushi, I tend to go to Sushi Seki. I’ve been going there for years. But you’ve got to go to the bar and sit in front of Seki. For Italian, I love Il Buco–it’s fabulous. Just really fun. The other restaurant I go to all the time is Balthazar. So that’s the short list.
Have you tried the Cronut?
I have. It’s very good, yeah. The one I had was purchased in the morning, and we ate it like at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. I could tell that it might have taken on a little moisture from the filing. It probably wasn’t as crisp as when it was fresh-baked. But it was funny, I walked into the kitchen, and there were a group of my pastry cooks standing around a table and taking pictures with their phones, I was like, “What are you guys doing?” I walked over, and there were like five cronuts on the table. And so they’re delicious. If you haven’t had one, they’re awesome, they really are. And I’m a huge donut fan. But this is just so hard to get. They’re dynamite, though. I’m going to have my pastry chef start making them [laughs]. Not for sale, just for us.
You could use them as petit-fours or something–mini cronuts.
It’s amazing, all the Cronut coverage around the world, it’s hard not to see it on Eater and stuff. It’s everywhere.
Gotham White Peach Salad
by Alfred Portale
4 large ripe white peaches (can substitute other stone fruits, such nectarines, apricots, or plums)
12 oz green and yellow wax beans
1 bunch baby fennel, approximately 6 bulbs, some delicate fronds reserved
1 bunch French breakfast radish, delicate radish tops reserved
1/2 pint mixed cherry tomatoes, halved 1/3 cup toasted pistachio nuts
2 large basil leaves cut chiffonade
2 tbsp finely minced chives
1 small shallot, finely minced
4 cups loosely packed mizuna greens (can substitute baby arugula)
Freshly ground black pepper
Remove pits from peaches, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges, and set aside. Cook beans in boiling salted water until tender, approximately 2 to 3 minutes, then plunge into ice water. Drain, cut into 1-inch pieces, and reserve.
Using a Japanese-style mandoline, thinly slice the fennel into a bowl of ice water. Using the same mandolin, thinly slice the radishes.
In a bowl, add the peaches, tomatoes, pistachios, beans, basil, chives, and half of the shallots and toss together. In another bowl, add the greens, radish, and remaining shallots and dress with the vinaigrette. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Arrange on a chilled serving platter and garnish with shaved fennel, fennel fronds, and toasted pistachios.
For Lime Vinaigrette
Yields 1/4 cup
2 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk together.