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Web site helps chefs plan menus with NW foods

1/18/2006-SEATTLE TIMES

By Marc Ramirez

Say you're a chef, and you care enough about sustainability issues to use local ingredients. Now let's say you're trying to design your offerings for next summer or fall. Would you know enough to come up with an entire menu?

Private chef and instructor Becky Selengut says it's not easy. "If it's April and someone asks me to do a party in August, I might know five things that will be in season, but 45? Where would you find that?"

Selengut set out to answer her own question. This week, she'll launch www.seasonalcornucopia.com, a comprehensive Web site that lists what Northwest ingredients are available and when.

Her aim: to make environmentally friendly purchases less taxing on the brain. More specifically, she says, it allows chefs to feel comfortable planning on, for example, Alaskan salmon for their January menus, even when it's summer. (For seafood, she defined "local" as ranging from Alaska to California to offer chefs a more realistic selection.)

Selengut, who had worked at the Herbfarm, began her list by monitoring the fresh-ingredient- oriented restaurant's menu offerings and mining her own gardening know-how. She then sought the expertise of an advisory board of fellow chefs, producers and ecologists that includes Bon Appetit's Danielle Custer, Bean Fairbanks of Willie Green's Organic Farm and Kären Jurgensen of Chefs Collaborative.

In general, she says, chefs have relied on two sources — Puget Sound Fresh, where you can search by ingredient and be linked to farms and harvest schedules; and farmers-market e-mail lists that tell you what's fresh that week. "It doesn't help you as a chef months in advance," she says.

And existing lists are broad, with few to no details about seafood, individual produce varieties and specialty items like edible flowers. Selengut's list, which she expects to be a work in progress, features dairy products, seafood and foraged edibles in addition to fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Longtime local kitchen pros can piece together a general seasonal knowledge through experience, conversations with peers and relationships with vendors like Charlie's Produce or Mutual Seafood. Still, says Jim Cooley, who heads Bon Appetit's food operation at Seattle University, "I think it could be an awesome tool for chefs, especially ones that are newer, just getting into it."

In addition, chefs who come from elsewhere and are used to an item being in season can double-check its availability locally.

The list isn't foolproof. Microclimates influence crop variations from Olympia to Monroe, and some crops do better certain years than others.

But culinary instructor Emily Moore, of Edmonds Community College, figures the list will help even locally rooted chefs better utilize the Pacific Northwest's bounty. Maybe they've been anxious to use matsutake mushrooms, for instance, but don't always recall when they're in season; maybe they forget morels are harvested in the fall as well as the spring.

Selengut says gardeners and consumers could benefit, too. "Seattle's a city full of foodies who care about the environment," she says.

And those who know something should be available in a certain month can request that grocers stock it. Selengut's list "is great because it gives us a starting point for that dialogue," says Lora Lea Misterly, whose Eastern Washington farm produces cheese. "People can say, 'If it's in season, how come you don't have it?' "

"I'm not looking to make money," Selengut says. "I'm not even sure how I would. It's, like — 'Here you go. Have fun. Save the world.' "

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102

or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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