3 strategies for cooking organic, local and seasonal food

3 Aug

By Alan Miles

I recently sat down with Liz Hopkins, chef and coordinator of Frontier’s in-house Organic Café, to talk about how she adapts the Café menu to the seasons here in Iowa. Liz and her assistant, Jami Kimm, work together to provide about 120 meals a day for Frontier employees.

Frontier Organic Cafe

Liz (right) plans and orders, while Jami — aka “CEO of the Salad Bar” — makes and stocks the dozens of salads and does most of the baking. The two of them together make and serve all of the meals and do all of the kitchen maintenance — from stocking to cleanup. They work hard, but also have fun! (No chefs were harmed during the taking of these photos.)

Locally grown and organic

Our café is committed to working with locally grown and organic food — and while not all of our suppliers are certified organic, all of them do practice organic agriculture. Our main produce and meat suppliers are right here in our own county, our cheese and eggs come from a creamery less than an hour away, and the farm that produces our certified organic CSA (community supported agriculture) share is only a few miles further.

With the mainstays of our café fare coming from local sources, Liz cooks according to our Iowa seasons as much as possible.

“Obviously, late summer is the easiest time for sourcing local,” Liz says. “Our suppliers have plenty of produce, and employees bring in their extra produce, too.” (And sometimes more than the café can use — it’s not unusual for employees to set out boxes offering others free produce from abundant harvests.)

To make it possible to serve quality food year-round, Liz’s plan is built around three simple strategies: use what’s available, stock up what you can and be creative.

Use what’s available.

It’s especially fun to eat in the café this time of year because there are so many fresh fruits and vegetables that show up in everything — salads, entrées, desserts and snacks.

The basil in this pesto panini was harvested from Liz's own garden, while the tomatoes were from Pheasant Run Farms. The roasted vegetables were part of the CSA share from Grinnell Heritage Farms.

The basil in this pesto panini was harvested from Liz’s own garden, while the tomatoes were from Pheasant Run Farms. The roasted vegetables were part of the CSA share from Grinnell Heritage Farms.

Our main produce supplier, Pheasant Run Farms, is only a mile outside the small town Liz lives in, so she can stop by on her way to work if she has culinary inspiration. Liz makes the most of using the fresh, in-season items — some making their only appearance of the year. She takes advantage of the fresh basil that’s available, for example, to make a show-stopping pesto for vegetable paninis.

“It’s fun,” Liz says, “and we try to make the most of it while it lasts — there aren’t any fresh tomatoes or sweet potatoes come January.” Not that you can’t stretch things out a bit.

Stock up what you can.

“We try to freeze as much as possible this time of year,” Liz says, ticking off the list of freezables coming to mind: “tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb and even corn.”

Meals are subsidized by Frontier — meat entrées are usually $2.85, $2.60 for vegetarian fare — so turnout is good. Liz and Jami also stock a cooler with fresh wraps and sandwiches for second- and third-shift employees and make sure the free coffee and organic popcorn we offer keep up with their high demand.

Meals are subsidized by Frontier — meat entrées are usually $2.85, $2.60 for vegetarian fare — so turnout is good. Liz and Jami also stock a cooler with fresh wraps and sandwiches for second- and third-shift employees and make sure the free coffee and organic popcorn we offer keep up with their high demand.

For the most part, canning is too labor-intensive for the café to use to save summer’s bounty, but there is one canning job that has become a tradition. Each year employees (notably Sustainability VP and avid gardener Kathy Larson) bring in buckets of jalapenos, and Liz and her assistant Jami put them up for year-round use. They squeeze in batches of canning as time allows, usually ending up with around 40 quarts of the popular hot peppers.

But even with the frozen produce and jalapenos, the long winter months present challenges.

Be creative.

“It’s harder in the winter to have the kind of variety we have in the summer, but we adjust,” says Liz. She notes as an example that side salad ingredients shift to foods that store well into winter — with beans, grains and pasta replacing the fresh vegetables, for example.

Liz and Jami also use Frontier and Simply Organic spices all year, of course. But in the winter, they also turns regularly to bulk food ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and broth powders, even using a lot of our food mixes to create some very popular dishes. In fact, bean burgers made from our black bean mix is a favorite vegetarian meal.

Organic cranberry and white chocolate scones, made from scratch!

Organic cranberry and white chocolate scones, made from scratch!

Another bonus: the café’s popular made-from-scratch baked goods are made from ingredients that are available year-round. Breakfast sandwiches and burritos, muffins, scones and the like are available throughout the year. There’s also no off-season for the large selection of homemade cookies. Liz says she especially likes our vanilla and other extracts and flavors for baking.

Nineteen years ago Liz chose Frontier over a larger company because she saw the opportunity to be more creative here. It’s our good luck to have her at Frontier creatively finding ways to provide us with delicious, healthful food that’s organic, locally sourced and seasonal.

Alan MilesAbout the Author: Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball. Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 33 years, his four kids and four grandkids.

3 Responses to “3 strategies for cooking organic, local and seasonal food”

  1. Simple Northern Life August 3, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Great thanks for sharing everything looks yummy!

  2. Ellen Bouchard August 3, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    Best part of the day at Frontier is seeing what Liz and Jamie have prepared for lunch! So thankful to have their culinary talents and fun-lovin’ personalities!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Eating in season with winter salads | The Cayenne Room - January 9, 2014

    […] dedicated cooks Jami and Head Chef Liz Hopkins work together to provide about 120 meals a day for Frontier employees. (Meals are subsidized by Frontier — meat entrées are usually $2.85, $2.60 for vegetarian fare […]

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