Dig into mashed potatoes with garden-fresh chives and chard ricotta cannelloni.

Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park utilizes fresh garden produce in its cuisine year-round, including wintertime. (Photo courtesy Jesse Cool)

Winter may not be the first season that comes to mind when you think about fresh garden produce, but there are plenty of delicious veggies to harvest – and devour – during the winter months.

Champions of sustainable cuisine, the team at Menlo Park’s Flea Street knows this well. Founder Jesse Cool and chef de cuisine Bryan Thuerk draw inspiration from gardens at home, at the restaurant and in the community, such as with the Riekes-Cool Garden Project. The team is passionate about sharing this philosophy, celebrating homegrown foods and the connections around them.

Over the decades, Cool has reshaped people’s attitudes about organic food and direct access to the produce that they eat. She recalls sneaking into the farmers market in Palo Alto when it was illegal for California farmers to market directly to consumers.

“Now everybody goes in with their chefs coats on,” Cool said in an interview. “There’s much more organic. There’s much more awareness of regenerative soil and collaborative production. There’s a real revitalization back to … growing the food that we eat.”

This is a year-round endeavor, including during the winter months. During this time, the cooler weather draws out the best in a rainbow of ingredients, including orange carrots, red beets and bunches of greens.

“My favorite winter vegetable would have to be arugula. The flavor and spice of the arugula when the weather is cold stands out way more than during the other parts of the year,” Thuerk said.

He emailed tips on knowing when the leafy green with the peppery kick is ready to pick:
“During the winter while growing kale, arugula, spinach, and bok choy, I look for the leaves to be full, dark green, and (with) firm but tender stems.”

“When the stems become overly firm that means the plant is older than intended to be eaten, causing it to be more fibrous.” But, he said, in that case, “they make great stews or braised vegetables!”

Cool names carrots and beets as some of her favorite cold-weather crops.

“They get sweeter with cooler weather,” she wrote in an email. “We have always welcomed some color and deep, rich earthy sweetness during the winter, when ingredients are primarily shades of green.”

Jesse Cool sits in a booth in her restaurant, Flea St. Café in Menlo Park. (File photo by Veronica Weber)

Cool says she recommends taste-testing to know when it’s time to pick a crop. “Nibbles of whatever is growing leads to innovation and understanding,” she said.

She’s also learned from farmers to watch what wildlife is up to in the garden. “When the local critters start to harvest and eat a crop, it is ready for us too, so jump at it and beat them to it,” Cool said.

One of Cool’s family favorites is mashed potatoes. For this dish, Cool uses chives and potatoes grown in her garden.

“Chives are easy,” Cool said. “Find a sunny spot, big pots, harvest when cold weather begins, chop and dry for winter use. For me, I cannot grow too many chives.”

Cool’s potato variety of choice is the yellow flesh potato, as opposed to the russet. When boiled, they’re naturally moist, and require less butter or milk. Harvest the potatoes until the end of November, then they can be stored in a cold cellar or vegetable drawer for weeks, Cool said.

When it’s time to cook, Cool offers this tip: “For me, pushing the potato flesh through a ricer, then whipping (the potatoes) with a whisk might take a bit longer, but it keeps them from getting starchy.” With this method, the potatoes become light and fluffy. Make a big batch, and don’t be afraid of leftovers, which freeze well for future use.

For a winter feast, check out Cool’s and Thuerk’s recipes featuring some of their favorite winter garden ingredients.

Jesse Cool’s family’s favorite mashed potatoes
Serves 4-6

– Yellow flesh potatoes, 4 pounds
– Milk, 1 cup or more
– Chicken stock, ½ cup or more
– Cream cheese, 4 tablespoons
– Butter, 4 tablespoons
– Salt and pepper to taste
– Plenty of chopped chives for garnish

1. Peel potatoes and cut into similar-sized pieces. Put in a pot of cold water. Bring the pot to a boil. Generously salt the water. Cook the potatoes until very soft. Test with the tip of a knife.
2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, warm the milk and chicken stock. Whisk in the butter and cream cheese. Set aside.
3. When the potatoes are cooked, strain. Run cold water over them until they are easy to handle but still very warm.
4. Put the potatoes through a ricer. If using a stand-up mixer, rice into the mixing bowl. If not, use any large bowl that will give you plenty of room when you whisk the potatoes.
5. Using a spatula or large spoon, stir in the warm milk mixture.
6. Whisk the potatoes until they’re light and fluffy. Add more milk or chicken stock if needed. Don’t make them too soupy.
7. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
8. Stir in chives, or transfer potatoes to a serving dish and garnish generously.

Bryan Thuerk’s chard ricotta cannelloni with classic béchamel sauce

Chard pasta

– 1 cup chard puree
– 2 cups semolina
– 3 whole eggs
– 1 teaspoon salt

1. On a clean prepped surface, place the semolina in a pile. Using your thumb, make a dimple or bowl for the eggs and chard puree.
2. Pour the 3 whole eggs and 1/2 cup of the chard puree and salt in the middle of the semolina. Using a fork, whisk together the eggs and chard, slowly incorporating the edges of the semolina. Once semolina becomes clumpy, add the rest of the puree. Begin to knead the pasta dough for about 10 minutes. After fully incorporating, wrap the dough in some clear plastic wrap and place in the fridge for an hour to rest.

Chard ricotta filling

– 5 bunches chard
– 1 pound ricotta (Bellwether is Thuerk’s favorite)
– 5 cloves garlic
– 1 large white onion
– 1 tablespoon red chili flake
– Salt to taste

1. Start by de-stemming the chard. Wash the leaves and pat dry with a clean towel. Roughly chop the chard and set aside. Next, dice the onion and mince the garlic to prepare for a fast sauté.
2. In a large sauté pan, heat up 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat.
3. When the oil starts to have a small amount of white smoke, add in the onions and garlic. Sauté for about one minute. Follow with the chili flakes and chopped chard.
4. Sauté all ingredients together for about 3 to 4 minutes, until all the vegetables are wilted and tender. Add in the ricotta, and mix into the vegetables over heat. Cook out all the water left in the chard and inside the ricotta. This will help your pasta hold its shape and not run into a big mess.
5. Once fully incorporated, place the pasta filling in a bowl and put in the fridge to cool down.

Pasta sheets

1. As you get the pasta ready to roll, get a large pot of water going on the stove over high heat. Later, you will cook the pasta sheets in a rolling boil.
2. Once your pasta is well rested and firm, it is time to roll it out. Take the pasta out of the plastic wrap and set it onto a light dusting of semolina.
3. With a knife, cut the dough into quarters. It is easier to make pasta in batches versus all at once.
4. With a pasta mill, massage the pasta until it’s thin enough to get through the thickest pass on the machine. If you don’t have a pasta mill, use a rolling pin to get to the pasta thickness needed to roll the cannelloni.
5. On your pasta mill, move the thickness grade down from 10 to 1.5. You can go thinner, but you risk the chance of ripping or tearing the cannelloni. Pasta sheets should be about 5 inches wide and 8 inches long.
6. Once all your pasta sheets are rolled out, make sure they are laid flat on top of a thin layer of semolina to avoid it sticking to any surfaces or other pasta sheets.
7. Now blanch your fresh pasta for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Place the pasta sheets flat on an oiled baking sheet.
8. Position the pasta sheet horizontally. Add as much filling as you desire along the long side of the pasta, roughly half an inch in from the edge. Proceed to roll the pasta over to form long tubes.

Classic béchamel sauce

– 5 tablespoons butter, unsalted
– 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
– 1 quart milk
– Nutmeg to taste
– Salt to taste

1. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, stir in the flour until smooth. Continue stirring as the flour cooks to a light, golden, sandy color, about 7 minutes.
2. Increase heat to medium-high, and slowly whisk in milk until thickened by the roux. Bring to a gentle simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and continue simmering until the flour has softened and no longer tastes gritty, about 10 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and nutmeg to taste.
3. Serve with the cannelloni.

Flea Street // 3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park; 650-854-1226.

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