Renowned Chef James Rigato and Organic Farmer Michelle Lutz Share Favorite Vegetables In Each Michigan Season
Sponsored by Equinox
Chef James Rigato is one of Michigan’s top chefs, having been named Food & Wine’s 2015 “The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes” and his restaurant Mabel Gray named a semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. He is a true craftsman — everything is made from scratch and with no set menu, he creates one-of-a-kind culinary experiences with what the season and local food producers have to offer.
Equinox and SEEN recently hosted a private culinary event at Mabel Gray, introducing members and guests to one of their main nutritional pillars to eat locally, in-season and organic whenever possible. The special 8-course menu prepared by Chef Rigato showcased the benefits and optimal flavors that eating locally-sourced and seasonal foods provides.
Chef Rigato also shared some of his favorite produce to work with, in each Michigan season, along with growing tips from his good friend Michelle Lutz, a certified organic farmer and manager of Recovery Park Farms in Detroit. RecoveryPark Farms is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that transforms vacant land on Detroit’s east side into working farms, and provides local chefs with the freshest produce delivered within 24 hours of harvest. In doing this, they create quality jobs for people who have barriers to traditional employment while eliminating blight in the neighborhood.
Rigato: A close second (maybe tie) to summer for opportunity, fall is amazing. I’m a serious cider connoisseur and hold the apple about as high as you can. I go to Walden, New York every year and cook cider dinners with my friend Ryan Burk, head cider maker at Angry Orchard. The apple is king of the fruit world, but assuming most people have spent a ton of time with apples, I’ll pick a less obvious choice: the delicata squash. Technically called the winter squash even though it shows up in late September, the delicata is delicious and easy to cook. The skin is tender and edible and the flesh is sweet and rich. It cooks in no time and is great in several preparations. Delicata is easily one of the best performing autumn gourds.
Lutz: It is my absolute FAVORITE winter squash. As a grower, I’ve loved its high yield and quick maturity in the fields. Growing in Michigan, you never know if your market opportunity will need hot-day produce or cold-weather comfort produce. Weather is tricky that time of year. What’s not tricky is knowing delicata is the first to come off the yields. It’s delicious. Sweet like candy, skin so thin you can enjoy it too — now all that love and admiration doesn’t totally emit that delicata has poor storage capabilities. So when you see it, grab some and enjoy it.
Rigato: Bitter greens and beans. Collards, dinosaur kale, brussel sprout leaves, turnip greens and so on. Many greenhouses grow these bitter greens throughout the winter months. But even if you need to buy them from outside of Michigan, winter time is braised bitter green time for me. Hambone and scrap, cider vinegar, onion and Tabasco can take collard greens to another planet. Dried heirloom beans are a great addition to the winter menu because you can source locally, cook hearty and eat nutritionally when there is less produce available. I could live off greens and some heirloom Michigan beans from Sheridan Acres all winter long.
Lutz: Winter greens are the best. There is zero weed and pest pressure. Just hope for no hard frost and as many sunny days you can get. Winter greens develop a whole different flavor profile. Leaves are thicker and flavor is elevated because the decreased daylight and cooler temperatures promote greens’ growth. James isn’t afraid to use greens — he always finds the perfect fit. As a grower, I appreciate that so much — there’s only so many crops a grower can take on in the winter. Knowing James looks forward to that “off” time of year helps keep a grower motivated on dark cold days.
Rigato: Asparagus. This may be an obvious choice, but this perennial is usually pencil thin, long and delicious in Michigan. I love pickling, shaving raw and making soup with asparagus. When making soup, I use the woody stems to make an asparagus stock, the tender middle to puree in the soup and either shave raw or pickle the tips for garnish. The season is fast, but the asparagus is usually cheap. Eat a ton of it and enjoy it while you have it.
Another perennial gem that’s technically a vegetable but more often served as a fruit. The bright, tart flavor rhubarb adds to desserts cannot be overstated. I never tire of the possibilities and look forward to rhubarb every year.
Lutz: Growing asparagus takes commitment. It takes a good deal of soil prep, timing and patience. As with many perennial crops, the grower invests a lot upfront. It takes about two to three years before even thinking of harvesting that incredible earthy sweet taste only asparagus can provide. It’s not until year three that growers start seeing a return on their investment. That investment, however, is a good one. Asparagus is the type of crop that, once established, can produce for generations. So, when they say not to harvest any stalk until it’s bigger than your pinky, remember all that great work happening under the soil to establish a crop that could produce for 20-30 years.
Summer is the easiest time of year to be a chef. Tomatoes are life, sweet corn is candy and bell peppers can be eaten like apples. But for me, the unsung hero of the season is the radish. They have a fast turnaround for harvest, come in a variety of sizes, color and flavor and are great raw, cooked or pickled. Not to mention the greens are delicious and can be sautéed or made into a pesto. I love to shave a variety of radishes into a colorful carpaccio salad and top with brown butter, preserved lemon, caper, chive and shaved Parmigiana-Reggiano — a fun cold/warm salad and a revisit to the radish and butter combo. Another favorite preparation is simmering radishes in whey and adding the greens, a whack of butter and chopped herbs at the end. Top with sumac and a drizzle of herb oil. So, good!
Lutz: One of my favorite and biggest compliments of my career was when James said I was the “radish whisperer.” Oh, how I love the radish too. It’s quick. It helps the grower as a trap crop, it helps the grower have product all season long, it’s mild, it’s surprisingly spicy, it’s my friend. The daikon radish only increases my love for the complex flavor this simple root vegetable can provide. When James first cooked D’avginon (fresh breakfast) radish I sent him one year I knew we’d be friends for life.
Read more about Chef James Rigato and the dinner we hosted with Equinox at Mabel Gray here.