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Summer Menus

Recently at Bistro Europa: beets from Oles Farm with pickled strawberries.

Local chefs on seasonal ingredients

Summer is in full swing, and that means long, warm days; farmers’ markets brimming with homegrown foodstuffs; and chefs intent on celebrating the local bounty of the short-lived season.

At farm-to-table restaurant Bistro Europa in Buffalo, chef and owner Steven Gedra takes a less-is-more approach to the manipulation of summer produce, preferring culinary techniques and chefly touches that enhance, never mask, an ingredient’s natural attributes.

“In the summer, I think it’s really important to stay out of the way of whatever you’re working with,” Gedra explained. “It doesn’t take much to coax flavor out of a sun-drenched peach from Niagara County.”

And while he appreciates and uses the season’s best-known crops like peaches, tomatoes, stone fruit, and corn, he also considers summer the perfect opportunity to discover and expose his customers to lesser-known local ingredients like serviceberries, which were once a diet staple of the region’s Native American population. This year, Gedra gathered the wild, blueberry-like fruit from bushes across the city and incorporated them into his menu, in one instance as a sweet accessory to quail.

Besides serviceberries, Gedra counts strawberries, rhubarb, elderflowers, elderberries, garlic scapes, baby onions, peppers, squash blossoms, kohlrabi, nasturtiums, and lovage—a celery-like herb—among his favorite summer produce, most of which he acquires for the restaurant from Oles Family Farm in Alden. Native Offerings in Little Valley and Singer Farms Naturals in Appleton are among his other suppliers.

Gedra says he is constantly striving to present food in new and exciting ways to Bistro Europa customers while still maintaining the integrity of the ingredients. Throughout June he highlighted strawberries’ underrated versatility by using them across the menu in both sweet and savory applications and in five states—raw, dehydrated, pickled, in a confit, and preserved as jam. This month, he’ll push the envelope further with a dish of sunflowers braised in white wine and herbs. Once tender, the blossoms will be stuffed with house-made ricotta, baked with a coating of breadcrumbs, and finished with a raisin-caper vinaigrette. It is, reportedly, a showstopper.

Chef Todd Lesakowski of newcomer August Bistro in Hamburg is similarly inspired by the wealth of summer produce available. He changes the restaurant’s market-driven, North Atlantic seafood, local poultry, and aged meats-focused menu on a whim according to what’s fresh.

Lesakowski, whose professional pedigree includes stints with Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City and Ruth Rogers of River Cafe in London, England, makes regular trips to the Hamburg Farmers’ Market and area farms, where he has been known to handpick the produce he uses in the restaurant. So far this season, his menu has featured spinach and green onions from Winter Farm in Orchard Park and, from Weiss Farm in Eden, shell peas, beets, rhubarb, and strawberries—the latter of which Lesakowski serves macerated with sugar and saba (a syrup made from reduced grape must) over an orange-thyme biscuit with Tahitian vanilla whipped cream and strawberry semifreddo. It’s the restaurant’s amped-up take on classic summer shortcake and one of its most popular dishes.

At Organic 3 Cafe, Jody Allsbrook is plumbing the possibilities of fresh local sorrel.

Back in Buffalo, at Organic 3 Cafe, chef Jody Allsbrook, whose approach to cooking is deeply influenced by a belief in the healing powers of food, takes seasonal cooking one step further by growing less common fruits and vegetables for the restaurant from her biodynamic satellite garden at Blueberry Ridge farm in Lawtons, New York. Her first yield of the season was a crop of Music-variety garlic scapes—the fibrous flower of a hard neck garlic plant. On a dinner menu in June, the scapes were spotted lending aromatic complexity to a potato pancake; grilled whole alongside their texture doppleganger, asparagus; and ground with kale for a unique riff on traditional pesto. The scapes she didn’t use fresh were preserved in oil and butter for use throughout the season.

This month, Allsbrook is excited to harvest and feature heirloom tomatoes, including mahogany Black Kirms, meaty Golden Boys, and antioxidant-rich Indigo Apples, whose purplish-black skin in immaturity is indicative of the tomato’s high levels of anthocyanin—the same pigment that makes blueberries a super food. Later this month, Allsbrook expects to roll out a crop of exotic, exceptionally knotted Melange squash as well as heirloom beans and peas. What produce she doesn’t grow, she and her kitchen staff pick up from area farmers’ markets. She is particularly enthusiastic about the gorgeous, nutrient-dense microgreens she has been sourcing from pesticide-free local grower Hydro-works.

She also has her eye on the sorrel and sprouts she has seen in the markets, but it is almost impossible for her or any of the chefs to say exactly how or when they will use a particular ingredient or what their summer menus will look like a week from now or even tomorrow. By its very nature, seasonal cooking is unpredictable, but in its capriciousness lies its allure for restaurant-goers willing to sacrifice certainty of menu for a dining experience reflective of the moment and place it’s served.

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