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Earth to Kitchen

Summer brings out the best of local chefs' creativity

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By now, many of us have seen more than our fair share of ramps. Asparagus may or may not be overstaying its welcome. And strawberries — well, can you ever truly get enough ripe, sweet, in-season strawberries? Such is the beauty of eating with the seasons: Just as we begin to grow bored of one fleeting treat, another is warming up in the on-deck circle.

Cleveland has no shortage of farm-to-table restaurants, where ever-watchful chefs keep one eye on the calendar and the other on the farmers market. As the mercury continues to rise, so does the enthusiasm and creativity of chefs who craft menus by the month.

"We cook with the seasons," says Matthew Anderson, chef at Umami Asian Kitchen in Chagrin Falls.

To prepare his uber-seasonal menu of Asian-inspired dishes, Anderson digs deep into the vegetable grab bag. He works with multiple farmers to ensure a steady crop of lettuces, turnips, radishes, asparagus, and tomatoes. But more than anything, Anderson goes crazy for Asian vegetables. In fact, he supplied one farmer with a wide variety of seeds to grow specifically for the restaurant. Bok choy, pak choy, mizuna ... those and many, many more will find their way onto Umami's dinner plates.

"I never know what I'm going to get or what I'm going to do with them until they come in," says the chef. "If they're baby, I'll use them whole. If they're large, I'll cut them up. It's just a lot of fun."

Ben Bebenroth has just installed a roomy raised-bed garden behind his Detroit Shoreway restaurant, Spice Kitchen & Bar. But that's nothing compared to the quarter-acre plot he's got behind his house. So invested in fresh, local, seasonal produce is Bebenroth that he recently hired a farm manager to cultivate his crops.

Visitors to Spice might dig their forks into a salad of local greens, beets, and sweet onions, or their spoons into a bowl of ramp and sunchoke soup. Dining here is like a delicious game of garden roulette.

"The ingredient we look forward to every summer — mostly because it's a camaraderie thing for us at Spice — are chanterelles," explains Bebenroth. "The whole team goes out and forages for mushrooms together."

Armed with more top-secret locales than the CIA, Bebenroth knows just where to go to score the best 'shrooms, greens, herbs, tree nuts, shoots, and berries. He uses wild mint in cocktails, hazelnuts in risotto, ramp relish to garnish a pork loin, and he turns unripe tomatoes into a green tomato jam. Those foraged chanterelles will be dried and twisted into ristra, sautéed and served atop steak, and slowly simmered in duck fat.

"Confitting them in clarified butter or duck fat is a great way to preserve them," says Bebenroth. "We'll save some for the Killbuck Valley Plated Landscape dinner at the end of the summer, when they are no longer in season."

Matt Mytro, chef at Flour in Moreland Hills, could do without one summertime ritual.

"I hate eating corn off the cob — all that crap in my teeth," he says.

But that doesn't mean he doesn't love the stuff. He adores the flavor of ripe, sweet, in-season corn, and he does everything he can to extract, distill, and enhance those ethereal essences. Mytro juices the corn and makes consommé or corn panna cotta. He's fiddling around with a corn-based pasta, infusing it into the dough while adding smoked kernels to the sauce.

"When Ohio corn comes around, it is one of the most amazing things," says the chef, who refuses to buy corn from anywhere else. "I want to utilize the corn and its flavor without doing the obvious."

Not long ago, chef Brandt Evans sat down with a farmer and a seed catalog, circling every little thing that tickled his fancy, like a kid filling out his Christmas list. Downtown diners at Pura Vida, like the chef himself, will never know what's around the bend. "I really do not know what will be on my menu; it's kind of like Iron Chef," he says.

His wish list included exotic squash, rainbow-colored greens, and a cornucopia of heirloom tomatoes. But what he's most excited for is melon — sweet, sweet melon. And he expects a bumper crop of honeydew and unique heirloom varieties like orange watermelon.

"A ripe, local melon has the intensity of a Jolly Rancher; the sweetness is unbelievable, the flesh is 100 times better than the cardboard ones from the gashouse."

Evans likes to mix sweet melon into seafood ceviche, pair cantaloupe with tuna carpaccio, and incorporate the fruit into fun cocktails.

Ricardo Sandoval likely would admit to enjoying gardening more than cooking. The owner of Fat Cats and Felice has been around gardens and farms his entire life, and he's tended a kitchen plot in Tremont for more than a decade.

One of the most ambitious chef-gardeners, Sandoval now plants large gardens at both his East and West Side restaurants. In addition to herbs, radishes, gherkins, squash, peppers, and eggplant, Sandoval plants lots and lots and lots of tomatoes.

"Oh, the tomatoes," he coos. "I love the tomatoes." This year, he sowed about 50 or 60 plants, ranging from bite-size cherries and grapes to crimson-colored heirlooms. They will find their way onto salads, maybe a steak — but never into a pot.

"They will always be raw," he says. "I will never cook a tomato when it's in season. Maybe at the end of the season, when I have a lot of tomatoes, I'll make a sauce to preserve them."

TRENDING...

5 flavor movements hitting town this summerBeets, beets, beets (and beets)

Long the staple of tortured teens, beets are the new darling of the farm-to-table movement. "They're just so versatile," says chef Jeff Jarrett, who grows and serves many different varieties at his restaurant, AMP 150. "We are always using them, and their color tells you how they'll taste." Red is earthy and dark, yellow is citrusy and juicy, candy-stripe is candy-sweet.

We can pickle that!

"We pickle everything," says chef Demetrios Atheneos of Deagan's Kitchen & Bar in Lakewood. He's not alone: Pickled everything is everywhere, appearing as snacks, garnishes, and even in cocktails. "We pickle pretty much everything in the Chef's Garden baby vegetable box," he says. "It's a great way to show them off."

Asian vegetables

Chances are good that the next vegetable to pass your lips will have Asian origins. Daikon radish, Japanese eggplant, bok choy, mustard greens ... these are just a few of the items immigrating onto Cleveland plates. "Greens in general are becoming more fashionable to eat, and people are getting tired of eating just kale and spinach," says Matthew Anderson of Umami Asian Kitchen.

North African spices and blends

North African spices like cumin, cinnamon, and coriander, and blends like vadouvan, berbere, and harissa, add a sexy, earthy tone to meats, fish, grains, and vegetables. "The veggie is becoming the star of the plate these days," notes chef Brandt Evans of Pura Vida. "Now rub those greens with a tandoori spice or sprinkle a portobello mushroom with fenugreek, and you bring it to a whole other level."

Herb-, veggie-, and fruit-infused spirits

A shrub is a cooked mixture of fruit, vinegar, and sugar that happens to go great in cocktails. Spice Kitchen adds a beet shrub to vodka. Mint-infused bourbon makes a brilliant julep. Lemon verbena adds zip to pretty much everything. Matthew Mytro of Flour speeds up the infusion process, which can take weeks, down to just 30 minutes by putting everything in a sous vide machine. Coming soon to Flour: smoked peach-infused bourbon. — Trattner

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