Season of Bounty
Lark’s John Sundstrom celebrates summer with a vegetable pistou.
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATT MORNICK
For a brief window in late summer, when Seattle is awarded heat and sunshine, a flood of fresh produce fills the marketplace. Farmers, gardeners, cooks, and chefs all struggle to keep pace. With the season of bounty upon us, I turned to John Sundstrom, chef/owner of Lark restaurant, for a steadfast recipe that keeps you ahead of late summer’s harvest.
What is a go-to recipe this time of year?
If you garden or shop at a farmers market, there are days when you end up with more than you bargained for. Summer vegetable pistou is a great catch-all dish for the largess of fresh or overripe vegetables. The foundation of the dish is a vegetable or chicken broth seasoned with a dollop of pistou, the French’s take on traditional pesto. This makes for a wonderful Sunday lunch or Saturday dinner because you clean out the bounty, in a good way.
When did you first come across the summer vegetable pistou?
I first learned about this dish from Anne Willan’s time in France during the 1970s and ‘80s. When I came across this Provencal recipe, I knew it would have a home in the Northwest.
Most people are familiar with the traditional pesto alla Genovese, with garlic, pine nuts, basil, Parmesan, and pecorino, blended with olive oil. The French pistou adds tomatoes to the garlic, pine nuts, and basil, yet comes together without cheese. The tomato rounds out the flavor by mellowing the basil’s bite.
What do you look for when seeking out produce?
This time of year, availability changes week to week. Sometimes I head to a nearby farmers market to connect with friends and suppliers and find out what produce they are excited about. The key factor is quality. When deciding between a main-line produce company versus a local, energetic farmer who shows up at the back of the restaurant offering up a fresh harvest of baby lettuces, it is immediately clear that local farmers have better quality, and I know it’s grown in the region.
So locally grown is important to you. Why?
When I started preparing food seasonally, local farms focused on producing six months at a time. Now many local farms are producing year round. They have thought through ways to harvest produce in seasonal shifts. About 50 percent of our produce is from the Northwest, November through May. June through October, it increases to 80 percent. We source locally as much as possible rather than source products from outside the region, even when the product may be highly sought out. For example, when Washington salmon run, I source locally. I’d rather sell Washington-caught marbled salmon than Copper Spur salmon from Alaska, because Washington salmon is delicious, it’s local, and it’s a little bit of our local underdog.
It just makes sense to source regionally and support our neighbors. At some point, you get to know these people and want to see them succeed. You get connected and tied into the local economy. It is all very positive, while simultaneously resulting in fresher, tastier ingredients to work with, which dove-tails into my mission as a chef: serve the highest-quality products to our customers.
What makes this recipe special?
As I said, this is a wonderful way to use produce in abundance. Of course chefs love to be creative, but we also deal with the economics of running a restaurant. The best recipes are a result of creative efforts to use whatever is in excess.
At first glance, this may look more complicated than the average recipe, but it is simple and comes together quickly. Add whatever is fresh and ready to eat from the garden or the market. The key is to be flexible.
Sometimes people get stuck in a recipe or hesitate to change it. With this recipe, it is OK to make changes. I encourage it. That is the fun of cooking and the way chefs operate. A rigid interpretation of a recipe can be a barrier to people cooking. And the goal is to get people cooking more.
The more we learn about food, health, and wellness, the more it becomes clear that cooking is a pathway to better health, improving our environment, and supporting locally grown food. Let’s get people who already shop at farmers markets and who already cook a little to the next level of cooking — making delicious food with what is on hand. People cooking more — that is what I want to see.
Finally, what beverage do you pair with this recipe?
If you asked me this question 15 years ago, I would have pointed you to a Provencal-style rosé. I’ve come to love examples of this style by Syncline Winery and Chinook Winery. In general, though, look toward a lighter wine. If you are looking for a red, go with a Rhone-style Grenache-Mourvedre-Syrah blend, something rough around the edges.
Lark 952 E. Seneca Street, Seattle, WA, 98122, (206) 323-5275, larkseattle.com.
West Coast photographer Matt Mornick specializes in photographing food and people. His portfolio is available at mornick.com.
Summer Vegetable Pistou
from John Sundstrom of Lark
serves 4-6 | total time 1 hour
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
1 cup summer squash, diced
1 cup ripe tomatoes, cored and diced
1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup green beans
1/4 cup cannellini beans, precooked
1/4 cup dry white wine
4 cups Parmesan stock (see below)
kosher or sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
pistou sauce (see below)
Saute onion in olive oil on medium heat until light golden, Add garlic and cook until softened. Add vegetables, beans, and white wine. Reduce wine slightly, then add stock, and seasonings. Simmer until vegetables are tender. Stir in pistou sauce and immediately ladle into serving bowl(s).
Serve as a hearty vegetarian main course or as a side with grilled sockeye, chicken, or pork.
2 cups basil leaves
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
kosher or sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
Place basil, garlic, tomatoes, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse to puree, scraping down the sides of the bowl. With the motor on, add oil in a slow stream to emulsify, then season.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 celery ribs, trimmed and diced
1 head garlic, peeled and cracked
1 cup white wine
1/2 pound Parmesan rinds
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 gallon vegetable stock (or water)
3 tablespoons kosher salt
Saute vegetables in olive oil until golden, add wine, and reduce by half. Add Parmesan rinds, aromatics, stock, and salt. Simmer 1 hour, strain, discard solids, cool and freeze to store.