Funny what a week on the farm can do for a person. Between milking goats and, no way out, killing chickens, local chef Becky Selengut validated a deep passion within her.
We should all be so fortunate.
"I love teaching," Selengut was saying out loud this past week while recalling her experience at the Quillisascut Farm School of Domestic Arts program for culinary professionals. "I am committed to education."
Selengut worked as a chef for nine years, including three at the renowned Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville. She was aware that the lifestyle was disrupting her health habits and connection to family, plus keeping her from a love for teaching others about cooking.
A week at Quillisascut confirmed her decision to break from restaurants and start her own Cornucopia private chef and cooking instruction business based in Seattle. Selengut teaches cooking classes at PCC Natural Market stores in Green Lake, Issaquah, West Seattle and, soon, Redmond.
What's more, she holds cooking classes in private homes for groups, demonstrating recipes and serving everyone dinner. As part of her catering business, Selengut plans and prepares dinner party menus that have been as extensive as eight to 10 courses with matching wine selections. She conducts one-on-one lessons upon request.
Another impressive line on her culinary résumé: Selengut taught cooking skills to immigrants and refugees through a Seattle Central Community College program and helped them find jobs.
Selengut's latest project is a new Web site, www.seasonalcornucopia.com, which is designed for chefs, restaurateurs, home cooks and gardeners who want to develop meals that feature local foods. The site features the harvest seasons and availability of more than 250 foods. It launched last Wednesday after a year of intense work and considerable investment of her money. The site has been "vetted" by local chefs, food suppliers, farmers, biologists, mushroom foragers and others.
The site visits and e-mails flowed.
"There were 40 searches for asparagus on the first day," said Selengut. "I know those searches are coming from home cooks and gardeners, not chefs."
About half of Selengut's e-mails to date are from chefs who appreciate the all-in-one source. Previously, planning a seasonal menu meant waiting until the week or month was upon you, then checking out local farmers markets e-mails and the Puget Sound Fresh site (www pugetsound fresh.org) created by the King County Agriculture Committee. The site allows the chefs among us to search out the peak seasonal ingredients for any month in which we are planning a special-occasion meal.
"I am getting e-mails from home cooks who are happy to have a place to learn more about seasonal foods," said Selengut. "They tell me it has been a goal but they didn't know where to look."
For the record, Selengut welcomes e-mails and input about sources of the foods listed or other local items that could be added to the site.
"It is definitely a work in progress," she said. "I see it as a sort of lifelong project and am already getting lots of ideas to make the site better."
Selengut mused that she might have become a librarian if she didn't train as a chef at Seattle Culinary Academy. She sees the Web site as a clearinghouse.
Here are some of the categories: fruits, vegetables, foraged edibles, herbs, meat, seafood, edible flowers, nuts, salad greens, wild mushrooms, cheese. In most cases, Selengut defines local as Pacific Northwest, with the fewer "food miles" the better. For seafood, she expands the catch area to include Alaska and California.
One valuable feature is learning what's in season for a given month. Even winter bears fruit, so to speak. Among the seasonal items (plus dozens of year-round items) for late January are sturgeon caught in Washington and Oregon, blue mussels from Washington, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, garlic, horseradish, sea cucumber, sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes) and four kinds of wild mushrooms (hedgehog, yellowfeet, black/white truffles).
The seafood research is formidable and detailed. For example, you can check the differences and uses for four types of local shrimp. One big plus is learning how to procure wild catches from local fisherman.
Seafood serves as a model subsection for Selengut, who envisions all food items as coming complete with descriptions of local varieties and links to farmers and producers who supply them. As the site develops, Selengut will link visitors to her business site, www.cornucopiacuisine.com, and other chef/restaurant sites to download recipes.
Locally grown and produced foods, of course, contribute to the sustainable agriculture model. Buy local so small farmers and producers can stay profitable, including cheese makers and natural meat and poultry suppliers. Buy local to encourage less, or no, use of chemicals in produce and wild-caught seafood. Buy local to cut down on food miles on produce shipped from California and South America. Buy local because the food is fresher.
Buy local because your family will learn to love the flavors of local produce. Buy local because you know where the food comes from and who is growing, raising, producing or catching it.
"I grew up in New Jersey, but somehow always knew I was a West Coast girl," said Selengut. "We have so many available and wonderful local foods in the Pacific Northwest. It shouldn't be so hard to plan them into seasonal menus and meals."
The idea for www.seasonalcornucopia.com germinated at the farm table at Quillisascut. Other chefs, producers and ecologists were just as enthused about a local foods database for Seattle and the Puget Sound area.
"We all agreed, yes, it needs to be done," said Selengut. "It just so happened that I was in a part of my career that I had a little more time than the others to do it."
Bob Condor writes every Monday about health and quality of life. He is editor of Seattle Conscious Choice, which covers health, environment, food, social good, spirituality and personal growth (visit www.seattleconscious choice.com). Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or ideas for the Living Well column.