In this series, we take a trip to the farmers market with chefs across the Eater universe to find out what's in season, why they choose what they do, and how they plan to transform the goods into their best dishes. The series is sponsored by Naked® Juice, makers of delicious, all-natural juices.[Photos: Eater Chicago]
In Chicago, farmers markets only run from May through September. But that doesn't mean that chefs can't source locally grown produce year-round. At Green City Market in Lincoln Park, held indoors throughout the winter, chefs and home chefs alike flock throughout the entire year to browse fruits and vegetables, local baked goods, and other Midwestern foodstuffs.
Prasino, meaning "green" in Greek, is at the forefront of the locally-sourced "farm-to-table" movement. On one late-winter day, Eater journeyed to the market with Prasino executive chefs Riley Huddleston and Jared Case to find out what they're buying, what they cook with it, and the importance of local farm-raised fruits and vegetables.
What are you shopping for today?
Riley Huddleston: We are doing a bar renovation, so we are doing something cool with that. We actually ran a special last night. Candied bacon with fresno gastrique. So I'm thinking of dehydrating the fresno gastrique and the bacon and pulverizing it. Something cool like that for the bar. Then we got a bunch of beets to play around with. We got this roasted beet pasta. We have a dish right now that's pappardelle with our short ribs with roasted carrots and rosemary. So we got that to sample as well.
When you're normally shopping for the restaurant where do you do it?
RH: We go through a lot with Testa because they will stock anything we want. And then in the summertime, or when we're getting into the swing of things, we use a lot of organic they bring in from the local farms. We try to get as much locally as possible when we can. Organic is not necessarily better for us, but if we know where it's coming from, it's better. Instead of organic produce from Mexico, which isn't necessarily better if we can get it local. So we try to get as much local, in season produce as we can.
What's in season right now that you get?
RH: Most of it is root vegetables. And then there's like smaller greens that people can do in hot houses. Locally I've seen a couple micro greens floating around here because they can still produce those (in the winter). They're super easy to maintain and grow. Sunchokes, beets, potatoes—they're winter crops so they're going to hold. Then it's the same with carrots and parsnips if people are picking them at the peak of their season, right after the first frost, and then storing them properly. That's why working with the local guys is really good because we can trust that they're storing them properly. So then they're going to be amazing—they're going to be sweeter, there's less water in there, they're going to cook faster, caramelize better.
I came from California a year and half ago. I wanted to come to Chicago because everything is farm-to-table out there, everything is green and sustainable. I wanted to work with a company that had the same philosophies. There it's all year round and it's the norm, and here it's like you're trying to figure it out, and you have to be a bit savvier, you have to think about it and make sure you are working with guys who know (what they're doing). We have to rely that they're packing and storing it properly. Especially the potatoes. It's amazing how the starch—the science behind how it breaks down. So you have to rely that they're keeping it at the right temperature.
How much produce do you need to supply the restaurant?
RH: A lot. With our (restaurant) in Wicker Park we are buying cases of everything. We will go through three cases of lettuce. We make the spring mix in house. So we buy three different lettuces and they're all organic: Watercress, baby red oak, and baby frisee, and we mix them together. So we are going through about nine cases a week this time of year, three of each, and we mix them all together equal parts.
How is buying local, farm-raised vegetables important to what you're doing at the restaurant?
RH: It's a sustainability movement. We have to be conscious of what we are doing, 90 percent of it is organic. But especially right now it's coming in from all parts of the country. It's more sustainable to use a local source that we know and we work with and we know that they are using the right practices. I've worked with farmers that are so small they can't afford to be organic cause it costs so much money. But they are treating it, not spraying it; they are picking the bugs off by their hands. Literally by their hands. That is more valuable to us as a brand then just saying, "Oh, we buy organic but we don't know where it comes from." It is important that we are making sure everything is sustainable, biodynamic, and we are working with people or vendors we know have the same philosophies. Like Testa is our big one, we use primarily Testa. They have one of the greenest buildings in Chicago. Everything they're doing is based on the same philosophies as us, so we can grow as a company and brands together.
What are you making with those?
RH: These are very light and delicate greens that are easily grown. These are just the pea shoots. They're extremely easy to grow at this time of year in a hot house. And it's local, it's organic, and it's grown in the winter in Chicago. Pretty impressive, along with your radishes and stuff that you're going to put in storage and keep through the year. That's why Chicago is so unique because you have to think about that. And you have to understand. Because not everyone is going to ask where this comes from or why it's here.
What do you like the most about going to the market?
Jared Case: Taking the chef out of the kitchen can be difficult sometimes. However, this is so awesome, figuring out how it's going to work. It's the most interesting, intriguing and exciting part of our jobs. We get to exacerbate something that people thought was cool, and we have a restaurant, a vehicle to do that, in Chicago nonetheless. It's like Candyland for chefs. It's great to take things like this and make something really fun.
We're not trying to be a fine dining restaurant, we are trying to bring this type of stuff to the table. So when we are using this ingredient we don't have to do much to it because it's fantastic already. We can hopefully start to combat that ignorant mentality by going through what we're doing now. And it's greater to us to be able to say, "Hey, we helped educate."