James Beard Foundation Award

A few weeks ago, Legume Bistro was named a semi-finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award, in the category of Outstanding Restaurant.

Though we haven’t actually won anything, the recognition means a lot because what we do at Legume is very rare, and it is very difficult to communicate to the world exactly how this is so. All I can say is that the cooking and service we do every day is built upon a very fragile eco-system of relationships most restaurants aren’t willing to base their operations around, and a deeply-layered, process-driven approach to cooking that perpetually teeters on the edge of failure because of the never-ending attention it requires. Going about things this way is often cause for doubt, and so this kind of recognition goes a long way to encourage us further.

And though we haven’t actually won anything, the nod is a reminder to me to express gratitude to the staff, farmers, investors (who still haven’t seen a penny), and our guests for making Legume possible. We all had a part in this. Restaurants don’t exist in bubbles; they are intertwined with the communities they serve. That Pittsburgh can support a weird little restaurant like Legume says something about the health of our city’s progressive spirit.  For over ten years, Pittsburgh has allowed us to follow our hearts and do our thing, and for that we are grateful.

Late Winter at Legume 
Once we make it through the slog of Valentine’s Day week, we start to think about the late winter menu. March is a blurry time of year in the kitchen, and it requires a lot of planning and thought because if we don’t plan well, the menu will feel stagnant.  It’s not quite cold enough for cold-weather cooking, yet what’s available locally right now is pretty much the same stuff that was available in late December. The challenge this time of year is to make a menu that offers a sense of renewal and transition, without indulging in pseudo-seasonal trappings like asparagus, peas, and morels months before they are actually in season here.

Zurek is a Polish soup which is traditionally served on Easter. We typically serve it from the beginning of March until we start making wild nettle soup in April. Today we started the zakvas starter for the zurek, my favorite soup we make all year. The zakvas is a mixture of freshly-ground rye flour from Weatherbury farm, garlic, bay, marjoram, allspice and water that ferments for a week or so. We then use this tangy fermented mixture to thicken a stock made with bacon and root vegetables cooked in chicken stock.  To this we add hard boiled egg and coins of kielbasa, and a sprinkle of dried marjoram. I know it sounds weird, but it’s actually really good.

Any Saturday now I expect to see goose eggs at the Saturday East Liberty Farmer’s Market. That’s when I know spring is truly on its way, even if asparagus is still two months behind. We’ve been making goose egg flan for the past five or so years, and it has, like the cherry pie, developed a cult-like following. I’m looking forward to taking it to the next level this year with Seven Stars Cream, which we started working with this past summer.

Pete Burns reports he’s going to have two hogs available every week beginning in the middle of March, which means really great things at Legume. Pete’s is the best pork we’ve tasted since Dave Heilman’s. Too many farmers I talk to think genetics has nothing to do with flavor of pork, and that pigs only taste as good as what they eat. Not true. Diet, obviously, is very important, but so are the genetics. Everything we make with Pete’s pork just tastes better—the sausage, the goulash, the schnitzel: all of it. That it will be a regular thing is very exciting.

Long-time regulars might remember the antelope we used to serve many moons ago. We stopped serving antelope because we wanted to do all of our meat from Western PA.  But after so many years of lamb, beef, pork, lamb, beef, pork, lamb, beef, pork, occasional goat, lamb, beef, pork—we’re opening the door to the great beyond again. To be clear: we’ll never serve commodity meat or poultry or anything like that, but it seems a little senseless to limit all of our options to lamb, beef, pork, occasional goat just to say we get all our meat from Western PA when there are so many great farms doing really great work that just happen to be beyond our state’s borders.

A few weeks ago we received our first order of venison from Millbrook venison farm. It’s really good.  We’re serving it with parsnip puree, einkorn pilaf, and a little sauce made with gin, brandy, juniper, venison and beef bones, mirpoix, and homemade red currant jelly we made last summer. (No one makes a sauce like this anymore.) The dish is a labor of love, and we could never possibly charge what we need to charge to make it financially viable, even though we’re charging $39 for it. The Mainer in me cringes to think we charge that much for a plate of food, while at the same time the Mainer in me cringes to think how much it costs us to put each plate in the pass.  Expect to see venison a few more times before March is over.

Goat is kind of a late-summer thing, but in our kitchen, it’s psychologically in season in March because the cooks are eager to see new things happen in the kitchen, and throwing four whole goat a week into the mix of things shakes things up a bit.  Also, the goat we get from Brad Thoma is really, really good any time of year.

This year, I’m especially excited to see how our new butcher, Jason Wilcox, will approach the goat and hopefully help us get some new ideas for it.  Goat is one of the only animal we still receive whole. We used to receive pork and beef whole too, but that was out of necessity. If we wanted to work with high-quality local beef and pork in 2012, we had to get it whole and figure out what to do with it all; now there are pork and beef farms offering primals of the great-quality meat, so there is no reason to go through the whole animal hassle.  When it comes to goat, however, we can’t get them in parts yet, so we get them whole, four at a time.

That about sums up what we’re looking forward to this late winter. Everything changes again in the first or second week of April, when we’re focused on the wild foods of early spring—nettles, ramps, chickweed, wild mustard and whatever else Nick brings us. Then it all changes again when rhubarb and asparagus appear, usually the first week in May. What used to be the most difficult time of year in the kitchen is now the time of year I look forward to the most. Years of banging our heads against the brick wall of late winter and early spring has yielded a repertoire that is rich and interesting. And it continues to evolve from one year to the next.

Thanks for reading and for supporting Legume.

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