Chef Lynette Hawkins Turns to Local Farms to Bring out Flavor
Seasonal Comfort in a Bowl....
Lynette Hawkins calls soup “the ultimate comfort food.” The chef and owner of the casual Italian/Mediterranean café Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino always has a seasonal soup on the menu and this early spring it’s roasted cauliflower and cheese. This velvety soup not only showcases spring vegetables like cauliflower and leeks, it also celebrates sourcing the very best ingredients from three local farmers.
Hawkins grew up in Italy, where seasonal was “just the way you ate,” she says, recalling the first thing she learned to cook: ribollita, a Tuscan minestrone soup, taught to her by their housekeeper.
“To me it was like magic the way the fresh ingredients transformed into such wonderful, full flavors, along with the beautiful aroma they created,” she says. “I learned right then that cooking is so sensual—the sounds, the smells, our senses created the relationship with the food.”
Since opening Giacomo’s back in 2009, Hawkins has emphasized seasonal menu items utilizing as much local product as possible, noting the optimal flavor of ingredients that didn’t have to travel for thousands of miles. “It’s selfish, really. It just tastes better if it’s picked when it should be,” she says. Seasonal ingredients really shine in a straight-forward dish, like the roasted cauliflower soup.
Hawkins points out that she works only with local, small, and family-owned businesses across the board, including seven local farms, to supply and run her restaurant, because she feels it’s healthy for the local economy and benefits everyone with better quality choices and more diversity.
One of these is Knopp Branch Farm, a family farm located about an hour and a half southwest of Houston that she has worked with for more than five years. Farmers Donna and Ernest Roth employ strict organic methods including no chemical fertilizers or pesticides whatsoever along with a commitment to ongoing soil improvement and a focus on produce variety. They use “old varieties” of seeds, including those for their five varieties of cauliflower, because they tend to be the hardiest as well as being the most f lavorful and nutrient dense. The result is really beautiful produce, Hawkins says.
“They’ve had to work even harder than usual at Knopp Branch since the big freeze in January—re-planting to make sure their crops including cauliflower and leeks would be available this season,” says Hawkins, who loves the subtle flavor of leeks, especially for soup. “It doesn’t overpower,” she says, “and I love them alongside the shallots.”
The slow browning of the aromatic vegetables and the resulting flavor is key to the recipe. She cuts the cauliflower into slim wedges before roasting, ensuring a flat surface that will caramelize particularly well, adding even more depth of flavor.
Another key element in the flavor and texture of the soup comes from the fabulous raw milk “redneck cheddar” cheese (spiked with Shiner Bohemian Black) from Velduizen Family Farm in Dublin, Texas. Another farm dedicated to ongoing soil improvement, this time to ensure superb pasture-feeding conditions for their grassfed cows, the farm is regarded for high-quality ingredients and process. “Plus,” says Hawkins, “their cheese is simply delicious.”
For the final touch, Hawkins garnishes with crispy bacon from Felix Flores’s Black Hill Ranch. Flores notes that over the past five years, Houston has gone from virtually no local or naturally raised meats to more than 100 chefs supporting local farms and ranches for their proteins.
“Chefs like Lynette have a passion for cooking and set an example for others to follow,” he says. “It directly benefits the local economy.”
Says Hawkins, “If you’re going to eat pork, you want pastured pork,” noting the superior nutritional differences in pastured meats overall and her appreciation for a humanely raised product that is minimally processed. Those elements factor into the flavor of the dish. “And flavor wins,” says Hawkins. We couldn’t agree more.