Making Seasonal Shine
It is among the favored words across the culinary scene today, and for good reason – a seasonal menu is one that implies freshness and quality sourcing, but it goes beyond just the verbiage used to describe a few dinner items. As Jeff Harris, chef at Bolsa in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood explains, seasonal eating can mean just about anything depending on how broadly one is willing to source. To him, though, it’s more about a philosophy that centers on supporting the local farms whenever possible. We talked to Jeff about his strategy of sourcing at Bolsa, and why he doesn’t mind missing out on those ‘fresh’ tomatoes in the middle of winter or the braised root vegetables in summer.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Jeff. Since it opened nearly five years ago, Bolsa has built on its reputation for seasonal sourcing. What exactly does ‘seasonal’ mean to you?
When you talk about seasonality, it can mean different things depending on what part of the world, or country – wherever you live. I’ve always been a big proponent of cooking seasonally, but one of our big deals is using what’s in season locally. We’re going into summertime, and as far as Texas and the local farms we have here are concerned, is when you see the most variety and abundance and items on the market. I personally think it’s our best season – tomatoes, corn, peaches, summer squash, creamer peas, purple hull peas, watermelons and Tuscan melons and all that fun stuff.
So being in Dallas, if you cook in season and are supporting local farms, then you’re not going to have a tomato salad in the dead of winter. Since stuff gets flown in from around the world now, just saying something is ‘in season’ doesn’t exactly mean what it used to mean. It might be getting flown in from Chile when it’s in season! So much of that stuff is grown and is available throughout the year. If you go to Albertson’s, tomatoes are always going to be available to buy, but if you taste one of those hothouse tomatoes and you taste a field-grown heirloom tomato in the middle of July, it’s a night and day difference.
So to you, seasonal and local go hand in hand?
We definitely try to go as local as we can. For instance, we just got done with a spring menu, and a some of the stuff wasn’t available locally, such as ramps, morels, and fiddlehead ferns. They’re only available in the Spring, but in different parts of the country. We always try to start with what’s in season locally, but there’s also stuff that’s seasonally domestic, and that’s the second-best option. I’m not a fan of using something just because it’s available from the other side of the world because it’s in season there – you’re using energy to fly it across the world, you’re not supporting your local economy that way – it’s more of a bigger picture deal for me than just about the restaurant, to be honest.
So the sourcing’s not always easy, we’re guessing?
It really depends on what it is; it’s sometimes hard with the volume we do at the restaurant. If somebody says ‘we buy 100 percent local only for our restuarant,’ I would love to see that. Unfortunately, we’re not able to do that -we buy as much local as we can, and shoot for a super-high percentage of our menu to be that way.
And I think farmers have a challenge here for sure. Between the the weather – the heat, specifically – and the grasshoppers and other insects that are coming in. Especially for those farmers who are doing it organically and not using pesticides or anything like that, they’ve got their work cut out for them. Kudos to them for doing it the right way, because they could probably do it the other way and not get their stuff eaten up, but they have integrity, and I respect that a lot.
But it’s worth the search and the extra effort of finding and supporting those farms once the food makes its way to the plate?
Without a doubt. We’re getting these awesome East Texas tomatoes in – I’m buying them from Tom Spicer right now – and we’re doing sliced tomatoes, sea salt, and a nice olive oil and aged balsamic, and that’s it. We’re keeping it very simple. We probably sold 100 of them last weekend, and people love them. I tasted one of the tomatoes, and they were so good that I wanted just the tomato to shine – and that’s my philosophy and Bolsa’s philosophy in general, anyway. Farmers do so much hard work for us to get us this amazing product, let’s respect it and show their hard work on a plate. Don’t try to cover it up with a lot stuff – let the ingredient shine.
We’ve aso got a Windy Meadows crispy chicken thigh dish with braised corn, and zucchini and roasted pepper. I think that’s the great thing about summer, too: you see how the seasons and the weather work, and a lot of the stuff in the summer is really light – melons and light vegetables – and it’s so hot outside you don’t really want these braised meats. In the winter, though, what’s in season is really hearty; root vegetables and stews and braises. And when it’s cold out you kind of want that. Sometimes if you listen to what’s available in the season, it makes sense. Listen to Mother Nature is a way of putting it, I guess.
So do you have a garden? A mini farm of your own?
I did last year, and it was great – I just wish I had the time to do it again. It’s really great, it’s kind of peaceful – I like going out there in the morning; there’s something kind of spiritual about growing something, seeing it grow.
So in the meantime you’ll have to settle for the bushels of fresh fruit and vegetables that you’re getting from the local farms, huh?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’ll have to do for now!
by Rich Vana