Keeping it local, all year long

Don't blame it on the rain: You can cook with farm-fresh produce come winter ― just ask Matthew Dillon
Molly Watson

Sitka & Spruce's owner and chef would sooner wipe a dish off his chalkboard menu than serve it with subpar ingredients. Matthew Dillon's year-old restaurant is a solidly Seattle creation that serves an ever-changing list of simple dishes inspired by Northwest bounty: chicken nettle soup en croûte, puréed vegetable soups that change with the seasons, a grilled venison sandwich brushed with green-olive relish.

At his 22-seat Eastlake restaurant, local ingredients reign ― and preparations are as simple as his cooking philosophy. "I search out the best product I can find," says Dillon, "and then I show off what it is." Dillon started chopping onions in cafe kitchens when he was 12, working for his mother's best friend. After culinary school at Seattle Central, he cooked at the Herbfarm in Woodinville, where chef Jerry Traunfeld encouraged Dillon to learn as much as he could about great food ― as well as the people who produce it.

"I don't use any produce I can't get locally," explains Dillon, whose always-packed, tapas bar-inspired restaurant sits beside a Subway shop in a tiny, run-down strip mall just off Interstate 5. Far, far away from Barcelona, with not a patch of farmland in sight, Sitka & Spruce still manages to capture the casual, crowded, communal spirit of a true tapas bar ― and to cook locally year-round.

"Winter is a tough time here in Washington," he admits. "But fortunately, my restaurant is really small. The farmers' markets remain open throughout the year now, so more and more farmers have a reason to keep growing produce through the winter." Which, of course, means more chefs ― both professional and home cooks ― have no excuse not to use it.

"I'm doing lots of braised meats, fish, and mussels, and starting to work in lots of root vegetables. In late fall and early winter, I can get great greens and plenty of winter squash," explains Dillon.

And what will he do with this winter's bounty?

"I've got new ideas every day," says Dillon. "That's why we have a chalkboard menu; we feature a different group of 7 to 12 dishes nightly. It's based on what's coming in from the farms, on what I can get locally, each day. The products I have to work with are always changing."

No doubt, winter is a challenge ― but one Dillon is certainly able to meet. That doesn't mean he isn't already fantasizing about spring like the rest of us.

"I'm looking forward to those first asparagus and morels. Soon after that, sorrel, watercress, nettles ... " Until then, though, at Sitka & Spruce, it's all about the local winter ingredients (from octopus to turnips) cooked in fresh, simple ways and, always, new combinations.Let's face it, finding fresh local foods throughout the year can be a challenge, even for the most creative of cooks. Here are a few tips to keep things fresh in the kitchen, even as we impatiently wait for the warm sun to coax spring vegetables from the soil.

 

Try new recipes
Obvious? Yes. But still our favorite way to spice up winter's fruits and vegetables we've been cooking with for months. (Plus it builds our repertoire of dishes in the process.)

Use different cooking methods
Root vegetables alone can be roasted, fried, mashed, steamed, or sautéed, to say nothing of blended into soups or tossed with pasta.

Vary seasonings
Some of us always turn to garlic and chile powder, others never make a culinary move without ginger. Whatever your go-to flavor agents are, try something new.

Combine ingredients in different ways
Mix cabbage and cauliflower in with your stir-fried broccoli, add celery root to your mashed potatoes, or include mustard greens with your chard.

Keep a kitchen herb garden
Small pots of herbs can grow through the winter when kept on a windowsill, and the flavor of fresh herbs brightens up any dish.

Think beyond produce
Remember, plenty of fish and seafood is in season and at its best during winter months.

INFO: Sitka & Spruce ( $$$; closed Mon; 2238 Eastlake Ave. E.; 206/324-0662). Breakfast lovers, take note: Dillon is now doing brunch too (10-2 Sat-Sun). And stay tuned for his new culinary venture, set to open "sometime soon" in the Corson Building.

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