August 23, 2014

Dining

Bountiful Local Harvest

Chris Sherman | 11/1/2009

Tomato carapaccio
Tomato carpaccio — Sublime in Fort Lauderdale
Thanksgiving in Florida comes at the wrong time. In our upside-down seasons, April or May would be more appropriate for a harvest festival than November. Yet the first of the early citrus is coming in, as is the fall crop of tomatoes. Farmers markets have opened with some local produce.

So too in a larger sense, Florida’s winter-based agriculture has slowly begun to sow and reap a more diverse crop of fruits and vegetables for cooks and chefs who want to feed the hunger for fresh, local and organic.

Despite Florida’s benevolent climate, small producers only recently have begun growing the kinds of food available in West Coast and northern metropolitan markets. In the meantime, many progressive chefs were forced to grow their own. At Cress, a new restaurant in downtown DeLand named for the bright, tiny greens, the owners buy what local produce they can and grow much of the rest.

Even in late summer when heat cripples most gardens, Cress turns out an elegant vegetarian composition, a stacked confection of lentils, beans, squash and peas topped with creamy grits infused with wild mushrooms and thyme. It sits in a creamy pool of peanut miso sauce; a nest of crisply fried shoestring parsnips is the crowning touch.

Chef Hari Pulapaka
Chef Hari Pulapaka of Cress restaurant in DeLand
Hari and Jennifer Pulapaka, a Stetson University math professor and a podiatrist respectively, started the restaurant to promote a gourmet style of healthy eating emphasizing locally grown produce. While Cress can delight carnivores with Wagyu beef, bison short ribs or an egg roll of spicy venison, Pulapaka grew up in Mumbai as a vegetarian; his American-born wife has become one.

Key to their cooking is a plot of ground a mile away at Planted Earth Vegetables, which grows all their herbs, baby cress, microgreens and other vegetables; lettuces come from a hydroponic grower in DeLeon Springs.

Pulapaka’s imagination in vegetarian cooking is showcased in full-course tasting menus and cooking classes. “I appreciate dishes that are not just pasta primavera or curry,’’ says Pulapaka, who trained as classical chef and is tired of those usual offerings to vegetarians. “It’s a misconception that it has to be boring.”

Sublime restaurant in Fort Lauderdale has also striven to change that image for years. The restaurant, started by animal-rights activist Nanci Alexander, put a vegetarian accent into the entire menu. It ranges from sea vegetable caviar, fish-free sushi and no-cholesterol apple pie a la mode to splashy cocktails where call brand vodka mixes with fresh limeade, muddled blueberries and organic cane sugar.

When chef Melissa Kelly, a hero of local produce in Rockland, Maine, opened a Florida branch of her Primo restaurant at the J.W. Marriott hotel in Lake Buena Vista, she set up her own organic garden on the hotel property.

In some cases, small farmers bring fresh produce to restaurants or outdoor markets. Local food advocate Greg Howe, chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, has a market so bountiful that he turned its ingredients into a three-course lunch. Part of that harvest comes from Worden Farm, a 55-acre organic farm in Punta Gorda that is one of the best hopes of a new breed of farmers and small sustainable farms. Eva Worden has planted a model community-supported farm that supplies members, market shoppers and chefs — and optimism for those of us who want to eat our vegetables.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Agriculture

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