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Farmed Out: Hi-Lo Barbecue’s Brassica Salad With Mustard Flowers
Summer Sewell | Photo: Summer Sewell | December 18, 2013
Chef Robin Song takes us to Dirty Girl Produce, the seed for his winter salad.
Robin Song is yawning as he winds his car through the Santa Cruz mountains. He’s been pulling executive chef double duty at sister restaurants, Hi-Lo BBQ and Hog & Rocks, and picking up weekend brunch service for the third, fire-ravaged sibling restaurant, Maverick. Despite all the extra shifts, there is time for a trip to Dirty Girl Produce’s farm, which provides greens, brassicas, and other produce for the restaurants on a regular basis.
Salt in the air signals that we are closing in on Dirty Girl’s seaside grounds. Song, who is running on less than four hours of sleep, says farm visits are absolutely always worth the trip, “Knowing what it takes to get a head of broccoli to the restaurant is important,” he explains. “I tell my cooks, ‘Respect your product and how much effort it took to get here.’”
Since he can’t always trek to Santa Cruz, Song gets about 90 percent of his produce from local farmers markets, making thrice weekly trips to get the job done. “I like to hand-pick everything. That way I can guarantee freshness.” This morning, Song is on a mission to gather ingredients and create a new winter brassica dish.
Dirty Girl sales manager Stella Araiza greets Song with a hug. He’s seen Araiza twice a week at Berkeley and San Francisco farmers markets for the last four years. “I just know what he likes,” she says. “Robin is always gonna want brassica.”
She’s watching him, proving herself right as he tiptoes between rows of romanesco and puntarelle. Brassica, the cruciferous vegetable family Song says we all grew up with—from boiled-to-death broccoli to bok choy—is most prominent on the Hi-Lo menu. Far away, Song indexes future recipe ideas as he walks between produce rows, squatting down into invisibility for a few minutes. Suddenly, out of the calm, he stands up and announces, “I know the dish!” He’s found some volunteer nettle—an unplanned but flourishing crop on the farm. The puree he’ll make with it, along with the rest of the dish, materializes in his head.
Araiza departs and Song disappears too. He’s darting around the farm, hacking about in a yellow cloud of mustard flowers, crouching down to clip handfuls of wood sorrel and sour grass, cutting bushels of wild radish flowers, picking heads of broccoli, romanesco, and leaves of Dino kale. He’s covered a lot of ground, appraised everything in bloom, is sweating, and ready to go.
Back at the restaurant, Song revives the wild flowers in a bucket of water, lays out all his farm finds, and tests the pureed nettle. He spoons Crayola green sauce onto the countertop, dips his finger in for a taste, and furrows his brow. “I come up with protein easily. I love charcuterie, pate, butchering. But it’s the vegetable dishes that make me think.” He prefers the embers of the pit over blanching in order to soften and then char his vegetables. Today, he softens the romanesco and broccoli over low heat on the embers. He then makes a salsa of chopped almonds, skin-on lemons, chopped broccoli stems, salt, and oil.
The final creation is a postcard from the farm that tastes as fresh as it looks. It’s a patchwork of yellow and green—mustard flowers and lemon skin, light green broccoli stalk shavings, bright green nettle puree, and the brassica charred to a deep forest green. The Meyer lemon flesh isn’t bracingly acidic. My favorite bites are the ones dotted with plenty of sweet lemon skin, with the crunch of almond and crisped kale.
Song says, “I don’t believe in changing the menu based on a certain number of days. It’s more about what the weather brings me.” So there you have it: the mixed heirloom brassica dish ($8) for the winter, weather permitting.