PLATTSBURGH — The good ole summertime means access to tasty ingredients that are available only this time of year.
Some local chefs and food purveyors shared their favorite summer flavors, and hands down the chefs agree: Take advantage of the bounty of local greens and heirloom produce.
“What I like best this time of year is anything fresh from the garden,” said Mary Bushey, owner of Conroys Organics in West Chazy.
Bushey said her mother raised her family to love fresh greens as early in the season as they could get them. Dandelions and cowslip greens are popular springtime favorites in the Bushey household. This time of year, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard and spinach are always on the dinner menu.
Bushey likes to cook her greens in a pressure cooker.
“For just a minute, until they’re just barely cooked,” she said.
She then sautés onions until caramelized, perhaps adds some celery and carrots and then tops it off with white wine to simmer. She’ll serve atop a grain such as farro or quinoa.
“I’ll also add whatever herb I have in the garden,” she said.
Basil, fresh parsley or cilantro are all good choices for the dish. She’ll finish it with a drizzle of good-flavored olive oil and lemon juice. Adding white beans for a protein boost is also suggested. The dish tastes good served warm or cool.
Besides adding greens to salads, Bushey suggests adding them to summer soups.
“And they’re so healthy for you,” she added.
Matt Ray, co-owner of Livingoods in Plattsburgh, has a summer fondness for Caprese salad, a dish he makes at the restaurant and at home.
“And it’s really simple to make,” Ray said. “Anyone can make this.”
Ray uses locally grown produce to concoct his summer staple, which includes heirloom tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella.
“It so simple, it’s delicious, and those tomatoes are like candy,” he said.
Ray recommends dressing the salad with a balsamic reduction, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.
“I look forward to every summer,” he said.
He suggests having a taste test by comparing an heirloom tomato with a store-bought variety.
“An heirloom is the way a tomato is supposed to taste,” Ray said. “And an heirloom is a term not just for tomatoes but for all produce that basically has not been modified in any way.”
Heirlooms have been popping up in grocery stores, but the bigger selection is best found at local farm stands, he said. Brandywine, black krim, Cherokee, Mr. Stripey, and black and green zebra are all varieties worth sampling, he added.
Scott Murray, executive chef and owner of Anthony’s in Plattsburgh, also enjoys the heirloom tomato varieties available locally.
“They just bring a tremendous amount of flavor,” he said.
What to look for in an heirloom?
“They’re going to be different in sizing,” Murray said. “They’re not as consistent in shape. An heirloom tomato is basically a tomato that’s allowed to be the way a tomato should be.
“You want some firmness to it, but it should have a little give. And then you’ll have a great eating tomato. If it’s too soft, the tomato may be overripe.”
If too firm, wait a day or two. But don’t buy tomatoes today for a dinner next week.
“Buy for when you plan on using them,” he said.
Another tomato tip: “Don’t refrigerate them.”
Murray has a fondness for greens as well.
“This time of year, it’s all about summer produce,” Murray said. “It just gives us an opportunity to get away from things we can only find in the winter.”
Braising greens — kale and Swiss chard — and salad greens are at the top of Murray’s summer ingredient list.
What to look for when buying them?
Murray said these greens come mostly in a head. Look for good, strong leaves that hold up on their own.
As far as preparation, if the stems are thick, slice them like you would celery, but cook the stems a little longer than the leaves.
“The stem will give a little crunch, while the leaf offers the softer appeal of greens,” Murray said.
Murray said it’s also a good time of year to look for local cheeses, as farmers markets provide a seasonal venue for local and state cheese makers to sell their artisanal wares.
“The avenue for sales and the exposure of what local farmers can produce is available now,” Murray said. “And I think people forget what the small farmers are capable of producing.”
Murray advised topping off greens and tomatoes with a quick-grilling meat and suggested locally produced sausage or a marinated flank steak.
“I try to pair everything together.”
And not too heavy on the sauces or demi-glazes this time of year, he said.
“Keep it clean and light for summer.”