At the restaurants, we buy a lot of vegetables from local growers. This being Western PA, the growing season has barely begun and there is little local to get. Peas are sown but not sprouted and everything else is started in a greenhouse or is still only being considered by the farmers. Wild ramps have just appeared but are not yet large enough to harvest and there are only rumors of morels coming down from the mountains. I have begun my pre-harvest ritual of begging for asparagus from the very few local asparagus growers in this region. Sometime three or four weeks from now I'll be driving out the farm early in the morning with a wad of asparagus cash to negotiate. We'll be looking for rhubarb, then strawberries. Soon, not yet.
This is a painful point, the place of almost becoming yet not being spring cooks. We ship stuff in by air from warmer climes where fiddleheads and asparagus have already appeared. I know it isn't sustainable but neither is waiting for true local springtime ingredients when the temperature reaches the upper 70's and our restaurant patios are full. How do I continue to justify roasted beets, squashes, and duck confit when my pasty winter nose is burnt by the spring sun? And of course I am impatient. I'm a chef after all.
What I really want is a farmers' market. They don't even begin to open for a month. I miss the farmers I see regularly throughout the summer. After years of buying from them for my home and for the restaurants, good friendships have developed. I'll find out about their children and grandchildren, dogs that were puppies last fall, new plans for plantings, and thoughts on items tried last year and rejected this year. I'll ask around to ascertain who will go through the trouble to grow me fava beans this year. I'll find my garlic guy in his usual spot and rush to his table realizing too late that the garlic he has at this point is little better than what I bought from him and cellared last year. I'll buy it anyways.
At this point in the year, I also take stock of canned vegetables in my basement. I know that I am nearly done with tomatoes 2005, the year of the amazing crop, and am getting into 2006, not such a great year. My refrigerator pickles are nearly gone but I know I'll never finish all the jam and apple butter I've put up and those six jars of salsa verde actually scare me a little. I'll begin to think about the seasons, what I'll put up and when it will come ready, and what I want to get eaten soon. I'll do a lot of tomato sauce dishes over the next few weeks, trying to clear out shelves and jars in preparation for the summer. I do want to make rhubarb jam this year. I missed the whole season last year.
Finally, I visit my herbs. Of course the trusty thymes and sages have wintered over. They're supposed to. And the winter savory has survived it's fifth winter, duh. There are a lot of onion-looking plants in the herb garden, either onions sprouting from seed or flower bulbs gone astray. I'll eat one soon and find out. Garlic has greened and begun to grow and I know that my tarragon, veteran of four winters now, will re-appear as it has every year. I consider the tarragon the apogee of my gardening career. I have never gotten it to winter over and now I have the super-herb. But both rosemary plants are gone. They seemed okay a month ago but somehow in the spring freeze-thaws they got whacked.
But it all will come soon and by late July, the profusion of light and heat and fresh vegetables will overwhelm me and make me wish for a simple time when the choices were fewer and decisions easier. Instead of trying to figure out where to get something green, anything green, like I am now, I'll be wondering how we'll use up these three bushels of zucchini I had to buy because the smelled so sunny and warm they must taste great. And the buzz of the June bugs will ring in the dust. And I'll wish for winter, and the peace and introspection that brings. And so it goes.