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Michael Ernsting Photography
Here in the States, Italian restaurants that adopt seasonal menus have grown to rely on local farmers to help with menu offerings.

New Italian Menus Bloom for Spring

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Seasonal menus give operators a way to introduce guests to fresh, local ingredients and exciting specials.
By Liz Barrett Foster Sapore

Italians believe in eating produce at the height of its flavor and designing menus around the seasonality of ingredients. Springtime in Italy translates to dishes created with artichokes, spring peas, asparagus, and strawberries. 

“Italian cuisine is historically tied to the earth,” says Cathy Whims, six-time James Beard finalist and chef/owner of Nostrana in Portland, Oregon. “Vegetables play a huge part in Italian food, so eating seasonally is a natural and easy way to stay true to Italian tradition.”

Here in the States, Italian restaurants that adopt seasonal menus have grown to rely on local farmers to help with menu offerings. A chef in Texas may not have access to the same asparagus as one in Tuscany, but any fresh, local offerings can be a welcome sight on spring menus.

John Valls
Six-time James Beard finalist and chef/owner of Nostrana in Portland, Oregon Cathy Whims

Reasons for the season

Spring is a time for renewal and change. For many chefs around the country, spring is also a time to experiment with menus. “We always want to try new things and we get excited by the seasons changing,” Whims says. “The fresh leaf lettuces have just started arriving and morel mushrooms are popping up in the forest. It adds a lot of vibrancy to our menu, which keeps things from becoming stagnant and inspires the cooks and dining room staff.”

Restaurant and guest benefits

Offering seasonal menus benefits guests and the bottom line, says Brian Clevenger, owner and executive chef of General Harvest Restaurants. The Seattle restaurant group operates Le Messe and four other concepts. “As a restaurant, we are able to serve the most seasonal product, which is great for the guest and what we’re always striving to do,” he says. “Also, because the product is in season, we’re able to get it at the best price possible, allowing us to pass that value onto our guests.”

Along with being more cost effective, offering seasonal menu items can also inspire guests to go out to eat more due to menu diversity, Whims says. “Customers tell me that they never know what they’ll find at the restaurant, but there’s always something new on the menu that they want to try,” she says. “Customers have come to expect our menu to change and evolve.”

Tips for seasonal success

Offering a seasonal menu can be as simple as featuring a weekly special that incorporates spring ingredients or as involved as changing up the entire menu—the choice is yours. What’s most important is taking advantage of the local produce that’s available and using it to add excitement to an existing menu.

Whims suggests staying in touch with your local farmers; seasonal menus are highly dependent on what you can obtain at any specific time of year. “What the farmers are growing will drive your menu,” Whims says. “Use what they’re growing as inspiration; be open-minded and use what they have.”

Trends in produce will come and go (pumpkin-everything, anyone?), which makes it even more important to communicate with local farmers and know when produce is at its peak. This approach stops restaurants from forcing an ingredient before it’s ready. “Squash can actually taste better in November or December than it does in September,” Whims says. “Knowing when things are at their peak will give you more delicious food.”

Keep the excitement you have for fresh, local ingredients going throughout the year; your customers will feed off your enthusiasm. “Get excited about the seasons produce and seafood options,” Clevenger says. “This keeps quality high, guests interested, and product costs as low as possible.”

Michael Ernsting Photography

Chilled Buttermilk and Freekeh Soup

Recipe provided by Cathy Whims of Nostrana

Active Time: 1 ¼ hours 

Total Time: 2 ¼ hours (includes chilling) 

Serves: 6

Ingredients

  • 6 cups water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup whole grain freekeh
  • ½ red onion, finely diced
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon sweet smoked paprika, plus extra for garnish
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup celery heart, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely chopped
  • 6 cups buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 bunch chives, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

1. In a pot set over high heat, bring water, bay leaves, 2 tablespoons salt, and freekeh to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer until freekeh is tender but still chewy, about 1 hour. Add red onions to pot and continue simmering until onions are tender, 3–5 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

2. Add all remaining ingredients except buttermilk, lemon juice, chives, and oil to bowl, and stir to combine. Stir in buttermilk and lemon juice and adjust seasoning if necessary. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.

3. To serve, divide soup among six chilled bowls and top each with a pinch of paprika, a sprinkling of chives, and a drizzle of olive oil.