It is a sure sign of summer approaching: displays of farm-fresh produce overflowing from bins at farmer’s markets and roadside produce stands. Grand Strand chefs eagerly await the opportunity to get these vegetables and fruits into their kitchens, onto their menus and into the stomachs of their hungry customers.
Local culinary professionals embrace the bounty that is the summer garden. Sweet corn, crisp squash and juicy peaches all make their way into flavorful dishes that highlight their seasonal strengths as ingredients.Darren Smith, owner and chef of Rivertown Bistro in Conway, literally has his hands in the dirt to bring in his summer harvest. Along with friend and former restaurant employee Corey Anderson, Smith has cultivated 2 to 3 acres of land owned by Anderson’s father, Eddie, on Kate’s Bay Highway just outside Conway. After talking for a year about the possibility of a large-scale garden, the men dug their shovels in and took the plunge. “We previously had a small garden, where produce grown made its way into the restaurant,” says Smith. “This year we decided to broaden our horizons.”
This year they began with crops such as Swiss chard, Jerusalem artichokes, bok choy and four types of heirloom radishes. Now coming into season are peanuts, potatoes, onions, corn, several varieties of squash and zucchini, beets, fennel and eight different types of heirloom tomatoes.
“The garden is pretty monstrous; probably we should call it a farm,” Smith says. “It’s been a learning experience for all of us. I am surrounded by friends and I am always absorbing knowledge.” In addition to all his duties at Rivertown Bistro, Smith spends part of every day tending his crops. After all, what is in the ground in the morning is often on someone’s dinner plate. “Just this past Saturday, we offered a total veggie plate, featuring potatoes, squash and radishes all from our garden.”
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Smith has always strived to feature local products on his menu and sees growing his own vegetables as the ultimate in quality control. “Many restaurants across the U.S. are creating their own gardens to provide produce for their use. It is responsible and responsive to your community,” he says. What they do not use at Rivertown Bistro goes to family, friends and the restaurant’s booth at the Conway farmer’s market.
Smith’s excitement is palpable when he lists the summer vegetables he most looks forward to: corn (a childhood favorite), tomatoes, okra, beets. “I’m really into beets now. I love to roast them, or include them in salads. They make a great base for a dish.”
Always fluid, Smith tries to do a summer-long menu, plus daily and weekly specials. “I always want to highlight what is freshest and bursting from the garden,” he says. Case in point is his Baked Chicken and Orzo with Summer Vegetables. The vegetables are all fresh from his garden, drizzled with a lemon-caper jus and topped with a gremolata of parsley, garlic, lemon zest and rosemary. His salad features heirloom radishes (some raw, some sweetly pickled) paired with fresh greens, bok choy, cheese and prosciutto-like hickory wood-smoked Benton ham from an artisanal producer in Tennessee.
For Curry Martin, executive chef of the Aspen Grille in Myrtle Beach, there is no better time for him than around the beginning of June. “That’s when the fresh corn starts coming in. That first corn is so sweet and tender with such a great flavor. It makes its way into many of our dishes.”
Heirloom tomatoes rank high on Martin’s culinary list of seasonal standouts, too. “They have a fresh, sweet taste, balanced with some acidity. They are always the star in many of our summer salads. You can just tell the difference between produce from local gardens and something from far away,” Martin says. “There is a fresh, vibrant taste; you can taste the sunshine.”
Martin has the luxury of being able to modify his menu whenever fresh, local ingredients are available. That way, his dishes truly reflect what is happening in the fields and gardens across the Grand Strand. His classic Fried Green Tomatoes is one such dish. It calls for only the freshest, firmest and greenest of heirloom tomatoes. “A trick is to always keep the tomatoes chilled until ready to use,” he says. Coated with an egg wash and seasoned flour, the tomatoes are cooked just until the crust is done. Then they are topped with Parmesan cheese and pancetta and drizzled with a Béarnaise sauce. “The saltiness of the pancetta plays off of the sweet acidity of the tomatoes perfectly.”
Although he does not eat them, Croissants Bistro & Bakery executive chef Bradley Daniels loves to make all types of dishes with tomatoes. “It’s funny, I don’t eat them, but I’ll try anything with fresh, local tomatoes. They are simple, fresh and full of flavor. There’s not a lot that needs to be done for fantastic dishes.”
For Daniels, some of his quintessential summer flavors are sweet corn, watermelon and peaches. “Anything that reminds me of childhood. You know, playing outside all day then coming in and eating something cool and fresh.”A popular dish at Croissants this time of year is watermelon tomato salad, Daniels says. “It’s a play on a Greek salad. We feature watermelon with a Kalamata olive tapenade, fresh local tomatoes and cucumbers dressed with creamy feta cheese. The sweetness of the watermelon pairs beautifully with the ingredients.”
Like his culinary cohorts, Daniels has the leeway and luxury of changing his menu when great local produce comes his way. “If I get a good batch of tomatoes, I can build a dish around it. It’s a blessing as a chef.”
Daniels’ Tomato Cucumber Gazpacho is a traditional chilled soup whose foundation is its fresh ingredients. “Not a lot needs to be done,” he says. “Fresh heirloom tomatoes are paired with crisp, bright cucumber, plus shallots, garlic, cilantro and lime. A hint of cayenne pepper gives it a kick, before being topped off with a chiffonade of cooling mint and basil.”