Before seasonality became a term embraced by foodies, it was how we lived, how we ate. Transportation was limited, refrigeration, other than what the climate and creativity offered, didn't exist. Winter offered no Chilean grapes, no pale, tasteless tomatoes. We ate what was grown nearby and in season. Period. As the girl & the fig's Sondra Bernstein writes in the introduction to her book Plats du Jour,
the French term plat du jour (plate of the day) dates back to the 1800s. It was restaurants' daily deal, "a great value utilizing the best of the season."
Seasonality's easy to love in slutty spring and summer, when produce is ripe and abundant. But Bernstein, whose Sonoma restaurant made seasonality a focus since opening in 1997, reminds us winter offers its own pleasures. "You get this extra permission to eat hearty," she says. "In winter, I love braises, long, slow-cooked food, gratins, things with cheese."
Not bad for a girl from Philly whose first restaurant experience was T.G.I. Friday's, "which I don't consider food at this stage," says Bernstein. But this was back in high school, and cuisine and seasonality weren't on her teenage mind. "You go to the market and fill up your cart -- everything you could ever want is there. There's not the sensibility of how far away is this coming from, you can only get this at this time."
Bernstein followed up her job at Friday's with restaurant management courses and discovered a talent for assembling a terrific team and for creating a happening restaurant atmosphere. She keeps that going at the girl & the fig. Meanwhile, her chef John Toulze keeps the focus and food seasonal, and their plat du jour offers "a tour of ingredients throughout the year."
Plats du Jour offers some of the restaurant's best-loved recipes, like sweet corn cakes in summer, braised baby artichokes in spring and one of Bernstein's winter favorites -- celery root soup with roasted walnuts.
Celery root looks like a growth you might have surgically removed. Or like an old man's knee -- gnarly, misshapen, sprouting odd hairs. Peel away the celery root's tough exterior, though, and you get a tender, pale vegetable, a whiff of springtime and a flavor like celery but deeper, earthier. "It's creamy and really can produce such a lovely texture,' says Bernstein. Celery root is like much winter produce -- its beauty is abundant but beneath the surface.
Though the dishes at the restaurant and in Plats du Jour aren't all meatless, there's a reason Bernstein named her restaurant the girl & the fig. She and Toulze make lavish use of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. "The book is about taking the ingredients that are there and letting them shine and do the minimal -- you don't need to do a whole lot to make good food."
Bernstein, who's expanded her figgy fiefdom with two more restaurants, ESTATE and The Fig Cafe and Wine Bar, sources locally. Not only does Sonoma offer an embarrassment of edible riches, it's where her appreciation of seasonality began. "It stems from the winemakers, the grape growers, the farmers and cheesemakers, from seeing this as a live-or-die situation. The cheese wasn't a slice of cheese on a plastic wrapper. These people milk their cows, this is their process, their livelihood," she says. "Those things were so different than going to Acme and filling up the shopping cart. Having the appreciation of those things makes you look at things a little different. I'm supporting the people who are making it happen here. I become part of the community."
Even during our talk, Sonoma growers and food artisans pop into her office to say hello. But everything Bernstein knew about community and seasonality took a quantum leap two years ago. In 2010, the restaurant teamed up with the Benziger family for The Farm Project, planting and harvesting organic produce on two acres of land at Imagery Winery. Much of what they grow gets served at the restaurant.
It is not all radicchio rapture. "It's a huge amount of work," Bernstein says. "But there's something having the connection of really knowing where your food comes from. It has connected us seasonally in such a different way."
Celery Root Soup, Toasted Walnuts
from Sondra Bernstein's Plats du Jour
In winter, we transform celery root into comforting soups and purées. Sometimes, we add celery root to our mashed potatoes and other times we dice it small to serve with a medley of roasted root vegetables. In a soup, celery root has a rich earthy flavor and the addition of the chopped walnuts adds a nice textural element and highlights the nutty flavor of the celery root. We don't overlook celery root in summer. In warm months, we julienne it for a simple, light side salad to accompany charcuterie and sandwiches.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, heart leaves reserved, chopped
1 large leek, white part only, cleaned and chopped
2 shallots, diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 pounds celery root, peeled and chopped (about 3 to 4 celery root depending on size)
Salt and white pepper to taste
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup walnuts, toasted and crushed, for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
To prepare the soup:
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a medium stockpot over medium-low heat. Add the onion, celery, leek, shallots, and garlic and sauté until the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir the vegetables occasionally to prevent browning. Add the celery root to the vegetable mixture and stir. Add 1½ quarts water, season with salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce the mixture to a simmer and cook until the celery root is just tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the cream and the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter.
Remove the pot from the heat and immediately purée it in a food processor or a blender. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
To prepare the garnish:
In a small bowl toss the reserved celery heart leaves and crushed walnuts with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil.