As cooks we tend to live in the moment.  A dish that finally reaches the pass began its journey when it arrived at our back loading dock or even when we located it in the walk-in.  It is hard to think further back than that since our work is endless and always demanding – we need to live in the moment and work with what is in front of us.  However, to be truly effective as a cook or a chef it is essential that we know how difficult the road was to get to that delivery truck or walk-in.  Until we understand and appreciate the journey our ability to do justice to that ingredient is limited.

If we take the time to understand and appreciate, then we will likely take pause.  This journey requires the farmer, fisherman, rancher, or forager and the ingredient to give it all – total commitment.  Here are a few examples:

[]          CARROT: It takes 70-80 days for a carrot to reach maturity.  The right balance of sandy and nutrient based soil, farmer care, rainfall and sun will yield the bright orange, sweet and tender vegetable that the cook requires.  It doesn’t simply fall off the back of a truck.  When you appreciate the carrot then you are less likely to waste even the peels that might be used for flavoring a vegetable stock.

[]          PEPPER: List the carrot (although above ground) the pepper can take upward of 90 days to reach maturity.  Too much rain and the roots will rot, too little and the pepper will fail to flourish; too much sun and the pepper will struggle and too little will slow down growth and maturity.

[]          POTATO:  The potato is a staple in many diets.  An incredibly versatile ingredients with almost limitless varieties, it is inexpensive and sturdy – lasting for months in colder storage.  A typical potato takes 120 days for the farmer to nurture and harvest.

[]          TOMATO: An incredible fruit that seems to hold the warmth of the sun when picked at the peak of maturity.  There is no comparison to the burst of flavor from a ripe summer tomato.  Most varieties take around 100 days to mature.

[]          CORN: Few vegetables can provide so much as an ear of corn: cornmeal for masa and flour for baking, corn oil, fresh corn on or off the cob, important animal feed, and some varieties for popcorn.  Corn also has a maturation range of up to 100 days.  Plenty of sun and just the right amount of rain is critical for optimum growth. 

[]          GRAPES: Whether table varieties or those for wine production, grapes mature 100 days after blossoms appear on the vines.  Grapes require lots of tender loving care, protection of roots, tying up branches to provide better sun exposure, trimming back vines at the end of the season and culling too many grapes to allow those remaining to receive optimum nutrients, mounding dirt around the base of roots after harvest to protect the vines during harsh winters, and picking the grapes clusters at the correct brix (sugar content) for the best fermentation results. All farming is back breaking work but caring for grapes might be the most physically demanding.

[]          AVOCADO:  Once a novelty item, now a significant ingredient that spreads beyond your favorite guacamole.  Avocados are finicky fruit that finish their maturation after being picked.  The window of opportunity for the right texture, color, and flavor is very short.  The avocado never waits for the cook, the cook must always wait for the avocado.  If planted from seed, the avocado plant will take 5-13 years before producing fruit.

[]          ONION: In a professional kitchen it would be difficult to identify too many dishes that are untouched by onions or onion varieties (Bermuda, golden, white, Vidalia, scallions, leeks, shallots, Red Wing, chives, Cipollini, pearl, Walla-Walla).  Many onion varieties can take up to 175 days to mature, but they cold store well for months.  Often relegated to commodity status in kitchens – they are one of a cook’s most essential ingredients.

[]          ATLANTIC SALMON: Of the hundreds of flat or round fish species available from fresh or salt waters – salmon has become the king on restaurant menus.  Available from Atlantic and Pacific sources – a salmon will take 3-5 years to mature enough for harvesting.  Found wild caught or farmed, salmon is nutritionally robust (Omega-3’s), uniquely flavored, and beautiful in presentation. 

[]          LOBSTER:  Lobster fishing is closely monitored to protect availability and their ability to flourish.  This, like most fishing, is difficult and dangerous work with sometimes unpredictable results.  The prices we see on menus do not, in any way shape or form, represent what the fisherman receives for his/her work.  The typical lobster (warm or cold water; Maine, Florida, or Pacific Coast) take 5-7 years to be large enough to harvest.

[]          CLAM:   The hard-shell varieties of Cherrystone, Littleneck, or Mahogany clams take 3-6 years to mature only to disappear at the hand of a consumer in a few seconds. 

[]          OYSTER: These bivalves are natural filters that represent one of natures most heavenly representative flavors of the sea’s brininess.  To many cooks, their first raw oyster is an epiphany – a turning point in their love of food and the process of cooking.  Oysters take 18-24 months to mature.

[]          SCALLOP:  Few shellfish are more prevalent on restaurant menus than the sea scallop.  Wonderful texture, the freshness of the sea, slight saltiness, and beauty once caramelized in butter – these rich seafood treats take 3-4 years before they are ready to harvest.  Their shells are a work of art playing the role of unique packaging for the prize inside.

[]          SHRIMP:  The Emperor of seafood menus – shrimp that comes from waters in the Gulf of Mexico, South America, Taiwan, China, Thailand, India, and Vietnam is, by far, one of the most versatile shellfish.  From sashimi to tempura fried, sauteed to stuffed, etouffee to gumbo, and shrimp cocktail to bar-b-que – shrimp is rarely omitted from a restaurant menu and as such is a critical ingredient for cooks.  Most varieties will be ready to harvest in 6 months.

[]          ANGUS STEER:  These beautiful animals considered one of the most prized sources of quality beef reach their ideal weight of around 1,200 pounds in 18 months or so.  In most cases, contrary to common belief, they are initially grass fed and given significant free-range access to pasture until in the final months of growth when they are transitioned to a nutritionally structured feed mix that is designed to optimize quality and yield.  Most processing plants have adopted the Temple Grandin approach towards kindness and humane treatment of the animals prior to processing.

[]          PIG:  Although there are plenty of examples of poor animal treatment on commercial pig farms, more and more ranchers are adopting a kinder approach providing opportunity for pigs to move about freely, interact with their own, and enjoy a vegetarian diet primarily consisting of corn and soybeans.  Most pigs are bought from farms where piglets are just weening off their mother’s milk at about 35-50 pounds.  They reach their harvest weight of about 250 pounds in 6-8 months.

[]          CHICKEN:  Like the stories of poorly treated pigs, chickens are notoriously mishandled, however, a growing number of organic farms are adopting a modified free-range approach that produces a meatier, more flavorful chicken that comes from a happier place.  Chickens reach maturity in about 18 weeks.

Knowing more about the ingredients that a cook uses will bring home the need to respect what it takes to bring those items to a kitchen’s coolers and dry storage, how privileged we are as cooks to work with them, and how important it is to fully use everything that we can and waste nothing.  It is the only respectful approach that honors the animal or plant for its contribution to the plate.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC  BLOG

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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