Seasonal rotation sparks creativity for local chefs

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At Bizou, Ryan Ferguson’s Bear Dog Farm oyster mushrooms add a fresh, local highlight to comfort dishes during the colder months. Photo by Tom McGovern At Bizou, Ryan Ferguson’s Bear Dog Farm oyster mushrooms add a fresh, local highlight to comfort dishes during the colder months. Photo by Tom McGovern

Why do summer and fall harvests get all the food love around here? Sure, there are peaches and berries and juicy tomatoes, and beers to pair with tacos to be eaten outside. But winter offers a pretty flavorful bounty that allows chefs to indulge in all that our farms have to offer: leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, squash, kohlrabi, radishes, mushrooms, trout, beef shanks and much more. “We’re so fortunate to live in an area where it’s possible to obtain impeccable local produce during all four seasons,” says Rachel Gendreau, general manager at Bizou, where winter ingredients make up most of the current menu.

But for some, the winter months are challenging, so it’s a chance for them to get creative in the kitchen, incorporating cozy flavors, fanciful techniques and vintage recipes to keep us all happy and well-fed during these hibernating months. Here’s what a few area chefs and bakers have to offer this season.

Bizou

At Bizou, co-owner and executive chef Vincent Derquenne creates much of his winter menu from local farms’ bounty.

He uses grey dove oyster mushrooms from Ryan Ferguson’s Bear Dog Farm here in Charlottesville in a number of lunch and dinner dishes like hand-cut truffle gnocchi and crispy pan-seared rainbow trout from Ellen Nagase’s Rag Mountain Trout. The mushrooms “are almost other-worldly in appearance—perfectly formed, velvety in texture with a luminous gray hue,” says Gendreau.

In the colder months, Derquenne slow-braises beef shanks from Seven Hills Food Company, serving them pot-roast style with pan jus, roasted root vegetables and creamy polenta. There’s pork shoulder from Buckingham Berkshires, which Derquenne and the rest of his culinary team use to make, cure and smoke all of Bizou’s sausage and charcuterie in-house.

Gendreau says that Derquenne also relies heavily on winter produce and eggs from Wayside Produce. “We typically buy an array of whatever the Mason family has available each week, which lately has included delicata squash, kohlrabi, spinach, lacinato kale, hakurei turnips, watermelon radishes, red rain mizuna greens and fresh pastured eggs.” Derquenne sautés the winter greens with turnips, radishes and shaved garlic as a nourishing set-up for the fish specials. Bizou also offers winter squashes stuffed with coconut curried vegetables and quinoa pilaf, and winter salads with kohlrabi shaved over Brussels sprouts and Fuji apples tossed with fresh persimmon, candied walnuts and vegan Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

The Pie Chest

“The winter menu has been the most difficult one to assemble,” says Rachel Pennington, head baker at The Pie Chest and The Whiskey Jar, and it’s not just for variety: “I’ve found it has taken time to get some customers used to the fact that we are sticking to the seasons for better or worse—no blueberries in December,” she says.

Pennington approaches winter pie-baking by selecting what’s in season—apples, cranberries, butternut squash, root vegetables—and varying those themes. For example, she says, cranberries appear in an apple pie, a white chocolate cream pie and in a savory butternut squash and béchamel pot pie.

But it’s not all about the produce: Pennington has embraced the “desperation pie”—desserts that use simple, easy-access and common ingredients like eggs, sugar, buttermilk and vinegar to make, say, an egg custard or maple chess pie (both of which appear on The Pie Chest winter menu).

When creating the winter menu, Pennington also asked herself, “What brings comfort? It’s cold, so what would be a comforting thing to eat?” These questions led to the creation of the peanut butter jam pie (with homemade jams made from canned summer fruits), oatmeal chocolate chip pie (basically a rich, gooey, deep-dish cookie) and the sausage, biscuit and gravy savory pie, topped with a biscuit instead of a traditional pie crust. Pennington says that most customers dump that one upside-down onto a plate, smothering the biscuit in warm gravy.

Splendora’s

“I mostly hate winter because it means pants and shoes,” says PK Ross, owner and gelato goddess at Splendora’s Gelato, “but I’m coming around to what it has to offer flavor-wise,” especially as far as citrus flavors and boozy infusions go.

“I’m definitely not getting scurvy this year,” she jokes. She gives a roasted almond orange vanilla gelato a “heady orange bite” by peeling oranges with as little pith as possible, then blanching them over and over before cooking them down in their juice and sugars. Ross says she learned that technique from The Alley Light’s bar manager, Micah LeMon, who learned the technique from former Alley Light chef Jose De Brito, who she imagines learned from “a fancy French chef.”

She’s also chopping oven-candied blood orange slices into a fennel-based gelato—“the blood orange slices, when done right, gain a cracker-like consistency,” Ross says (she’s eaten them with cheese)—for her pint club. In addition, she’s experimenting with preserved lemons, cooking the peels to pull most of the bitterness from the pith while preserving the citric nature of the lemon. “At the moment, I have Meyer lemons curing naked and then a wackadoo set of lemons where the cure is salt, sugar and espresso grinds” that’ll make their way into gelato.

Citrus not your thing? Ross is angling to create bourbon/whiskey in tea and stout flavors, and she’s been soaking golden raisins in Los Amantes Mezcal Joven since November. That mezcal raisin flavor, which has a hint of smokiness undercut by the sweetness of the raisins, is in Splendora’s case right now.

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