Dirty Work: Making the Most of Fresh Herbs with Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske of Contra
When life gives you sorrel, turnips, and flowers—or gives them to the co-owners of Contra, in this case—some pretty amazing, delicious things can happen.
Welcome to Dirty Work, our new series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. The results: MUNCHIES Garden recipes for you, dear reader.
Though New York is a seemingly endless landscape of brick and concrete, you'll find plenty of greenery when dining at the Lower East Side's Contra, where many of the dishes are rainbows of fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables, and edible flowers. Currently, the menu features creations such as Chinese radishes with fingerling potatoes and mussel emulsion and an elegant, minimalistic dessert of grapes with sweet cream parfait. The same could be said of the unpretentious but beautifully executed small plates at their new spot down the street, Wildair.
So when co-owners Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske wandered into our rooftop garden in mid-September, we knew they'd make the most of it. Granted, it's a little different, and surely smaller, than the farms they're accustomed to visiting when sourcing ingredients.
But that didn't stop Stone and von Hauske from (literally) digging in and grabbing bundles of carrots, nasturtiums, and herbs. Part of Contra's menu manifesto is to highlight "interesting and seasonal local ingredients," and being just a bridge away from its Orchard Street location, this is about as local as it gets.
"It was refreshing, unlike a typical farm, where everything is divided," Stone said. "Everything felt alive; you'd come across a little patch of nasturtium next to a little patch of sorrel ... The little hidden things were really cool."
That sorrel would later join a turnip and a generous dusting of matcha powder to make a very verdant salad.
"They were growing right next to the sorrel, and I love the acidity of sorrel with something really creamy and fatty like a turnip, so I got inspired to create some sort of turnip salad," explained Jeremiah.
Stone and von Hauske hauled their loot—which included carrots, nasturtium, hyssop, and wild sage, in addition to the aforementioned turnips and sorrel—to the Contra kitchen and busily set to cleaning and preparing them for an edible presentation worthy of their menu.
A sign hangs in the kitchen that reads "What Good Shall I Do This Day?" In this case, the deed would include transforming a humble heap of just-picked plants into some pretty extraordinary recipes.
Stone carefully cut the turnips into almost translucently thin slices, then quickly blanched them. He then made a quick dressing of brown butter and lemon juice, and drizzled it on the turnips, as well as some delicate green onions made into a salsa verde, to add richness and acidity.
"The food that we make at both Contra and Wilder is super simple, but it's all about what we're inspired by at each moment in time," Stone said.
Finally, he layered them on the plate with the sorrel, finishing with a sprinkle of salt and one more shade of emerald: a painterly spray of matcha and seaweed powder. Explaining the mixture, Stone said, "It gives it this nice umami, bitter, green taste, which goes well with buttery turnips."
But von Hauske was also hard at work with his veritable bouquet of wildflowers, picking through for the best, brightest, and tastiest ones of the bunch, and pulling out lilypad-like nasturtium leaves.
What better way to showcase these colorful little guys than on a slate of white? As in, a canvas of creamy whipped ricotta.
Von Hauske used both pork fat and butter to prepare a "lard tart" shell. This dish may look refined, but it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to its decadence.
Next, he piped in the fresh ricotta.
Finally, it was time to douse the flowers in lemon juice and garlic-infused olive oil to add some flavor. (Flowers, while pretty, are generally nicer in their aesthetics than their taste.)
But if this showed up on your breakfast table—well, what a way to wake up.
Though the dish seems spontaneous, it's actually a take on one of Contra's existing dishes.
"One thing that we do on the menu is an onion tart with fresh cheese and a ton of herbs," von Hauske explains. "When we walked in and saw all of the flowers, I wanted to riff on that."
"The tart tastes like each bite changes with every herb. The cheese brings out the fatty element, and the tart is really earthy, a flavor rainbow."
Stone called the view from our rooftop "insane." We could say the same about the looks of what he and von Hauske made from its gifts.
But you won't need a rooftop, or even a motivational plaque in your kitchen, to make them yourself.