Do you remember what it was like to eat food that was just harvested? If you're lucky you do, because there's nothing like it.
I was fortunate enough to eat such food as a child. My mother had a little garden that she tended out in our backyard. She would go out and select the vegetables for the day: The freshness, the snap, the color, the flavor were all as good as it gets. It was one of the reasons I fell in love with cooking.
That feeling came back to me the other day. I was touring Gamble Creek Farm; this and its nearby neighbor, Three Boys Farm, are recent additions to the Chiles Restaurant Group. This purchase is the result of the commitment of its founder, Ed Chiles, to provide his guests with the highest quality and most sustainable foods available.
As we walked through the state-of-the-art operation through rows of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, with their unique colors and shapes and an array of peppers from South America and Asia, I was handed a cucumber that a few seconds earlier was basking in the Florida sun, and I took a bite. It tasted like the ones my mother had served us all those years ago. I don't know which was greater: the memory or the flavor.
Never miss a local story.
At Mar Vista and at our sister restaurants,
the Sandbar and the Beachhouse, we can't get you food quite that fast, but we are doing the next best thing. The foods harvested at these farms are only an hour away from our kitchens. What you are dining on today may very well have been in the field the day before.
The Farm to Table program has been one of the most rewarding things I have been involved with in my years as a chef. We have long purchased as much product as we can from local sources, particularly when it comes to our specialty: fresh Florida seafood. Now we have expanded this to include the produce we are purchasing from these farms and other local sources. It is an addition that we are rightfully very proud of.
As consumers, we have all become a bit spoiled by the ease with which we can purchase fruits and vegetables on a year-round basis. This is understandable, given the size of our population and the distances that separate the food from where it is being produced and where it is needed. But with these challenges have come tradeoffs -- what was an exception has now become the rule. Food, be it beef, seafood or produce being produced on a mass scale has changed its makeup and taste. If you don't think there is a difference between beef fattened up in a feed lot or shrimp farm raised we invite to come taste the difference.
Cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients can be a challenge on a professional basis, but it is one that is very energizing on the creative level. Each week brings a steady flow of produce coming on line which we use to create new and exciting dishes in each of our restaurants.
Being able to ask ourselves, "What should we use today, the Tuscan or the Russian Kale? Or which of the five types of eggplant available -- the Japanese Striped or maybe the Rosa Bianca -- would be best with this dish? Or which of the hand-clipped herbs out of our own restaurant's herb gardens should I use to season today's featured dishes?
And for tomorrow -- Perhaps a few Shishito peppers or a new Gamble Creek salad featuring our spring mix with grilled eggplant, heirloom tomatoes and our peppery arugula.
These are choices that make a chef excited about getting to work.
While being able to serve the highest quality product in the most original way is our first priority, utilizing these local sources whenever and wherever possible is also a direct and positive way to support the local economy, local businesses and the people who prosper from them.
We invite you to come join us to sample some of their and our efforts.
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
Seasoned breadcrumbs (we make our own, but you can use your favorite brand)
1 eggplant medium to large
Grated provolone and asiago cheese
Peel eggplant cutting off both ends so that it will stand upright.
Hollow out the two "cups" with a spoon or ice cream scoop.
Season with salt and pepper.
Dust with flour.
Dip in eggwash.
Roll in breadcrumbs inside and out.
Fry in olive oil, turning as necessary, until golden brown.
To serve: Fill fried eggplant cup with warm marinara sauce. Top with grated provolone and asiago cheese. Bake until cheese is golden brown. Top with sliced fresh basil.
Chef George Quattromani, Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub Chef and kitchen manager, can be reached at 941-383-2391.