Local Crops and Flocks for your Personal Larder

By John Crabtree, Owner of Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua

What? You don’t have a forager of your own? No one who arrives at your back door with fresh sprightly colored amaranth, pea shoots, and bull’s blood for your garnish. No freshly picked wild mushrooms, still moist from the damp forest floor, or ramps or wild garlic, and no cardoons or dandelion greens? My goodness, how do you get by in the kitchen without the daily faxes and emails, apprising you of the fresh market—the imminent treasures that the farms will be picking and which will appear at your doorstep in the morning?

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Almost overnight, it seems, there has been a tremendous surge in the “local food” movement, becoming one of the hottest culinary trends in recent years. It’s a trend that is attributable to a variety of factors: the fear of tainted food products, so dramatically publicized in the media, concern over the environment (“local” means less fossil fuels expended in shipping) and the fact that most small farms abide by sustainable agriculture practices, ensuring the quality of the land for generations to come. But most significantly, as we realized at the restaurant many years ago, local foods, which endure a minimal amount of time and handling before reaching the table, just taste better. But how does the average Joe join in the fray of this movement within the comfort of their own kitchen?

There has never been a better time than the present to jump in and partake of the local food feast, or at least not in recent times. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and the local harvest abounds, so the focus naturally turns to the pleasures of indigenous foods. Yes, times have changed, but the old adage, “what’s old is new again,” clearly applies to the current culinary fashion. After all, did our ancestors pop open a can of Pumpkin for their pie, or need to remember to defrost the Turkey the night before the Harvest celebration?

It never occurred to me how spoiled we are in the restaurant business—with access to so many small, and large, local produce venues. Virtually every morning we receive faxes, voicemails and emails from purveyors who distribute the goods of local small farms and co-ops in and around the area, from as close as Mt. Kisco and Bedford Hills and reaching out across the farmlands of Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. We are at a virtual crossroads of an increasingly productive and expansive artisanal food industry, and at the restaurant, we have taken it for granted since the early 1990s. But even if you aren’t getting the faxes and voicemails, you needn’t fret, every day there are more new venues available to the common man in pursuit of the fresh.

Just look at the plethora of farmers’ markets sprouting up all over the place—Pleasantville, Mt. Kisco, Goldens Bridge, Cross River… They are there, right under your nose—you just need to look for them (a call to the local Chamber of Commerce will help). Generally these markets open up on Saturday mornings, and if you simply go and talk to the folks behind the stands and trucks, you might learn a thing or two about your own backyard. And if you can’t find a convenient farmers’ market, ask at your local supermarket if they carry local produce. Many of them, especially the independently owned markets, carry not just produce, but also eggs, chickens, cheeses and honey from neighboring farms. And you might even come across some locally raised Buffalo (see the Westchester Section New York Times, 11/4/07).

One of my favorite pastimes on my occasional day off is to simply take a drive into the country. And whenever I come across a handwritten sign that shouts “pumpkins” or “fresh squash,” I pull down the dirt road in my pickup truck to have a look. Sometimes I hit paydirt making new friends who are happy to supply us with a truckload of butternut and acorn squashes, or pears and apples, and sometimes it’s just a muddy dead end–but it’s always an adventure. When we visit my daughter at Franklin and Marshall University, in Lancaster, PA, we never fail to stop in at the Amish farm stands where I have found some of the most delectable produce and cheeses (and even homemade root beer) that I have ever tasted.

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But in these hurried times, if you need to cut to the chase in order to harken back to your roots, there is always the vehicle of modern exploration—the internet. Yes, there you might find what you’re looking for—an honest to goodness source for your Thanksgiving table—pears and apples, fresh cranberries and maybe some parsnips, potatoes, squashes, and kale (and even the turkey?). Check out the website LocalHarvest.com which will at the least supply you with the names and addresses of many local farms, and perhaps even the products which they currently have in their larders. But be forewarned—these farmers are often too busy and preoccupied with their crops and their flocks to be bothered with the phone or the computer—nothing beats a warm personal handshake, a smile and a bit of conversation which, after all, is what it’s all really about.

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