Besides minimizing your carbon footprint and reducing global warming, eating locally grown foods has become something of a blood sport in this town. Any visitor to the Union Square Greenmarket who’s been elbowed out of the way of the last pint of Tristar strawberries by a hyperaggressive octogenarian can attest to that. The catch is, eating locally can also be expensive. In an attempt to merge the locavore spirit with the cheapskate spirit, we went to three chefs—from left, Bill Telepan of Telepan, Amanda Freitag of Gusto, and Colin Alevras of the Tasting Room—with a challenge: Build a three-course dinner for two from strictly local ingredients, squandering as little money and as few food miles as possible. To keep things interesting, we pitted them against each other in a sort of ruthless penny-pinching farmer’s-market version of Iron Chef that came to be known as the Great Cheapavore Challenge. The rules: Spend no more than $25 (about the price, by the way, of a half-pound of micro pea greens at Greenmarket’s Windfall Farms), abstain from remotely sourced pantry items like olive oil, lemons, or salt, and, since these guys are such familiar faces at Greenmarket, refuse any proffered VIP discounts. The winner would be judged on total cost (of the quantity of the ingredients they used), average food miles (the distance their ingredients traveled to get to New York, the fewer the better), and the ultimate result—a meal that hopefully wouldn’t suffer from such restrictions, but rather be elevated by them.
CHALLENGER NO. 1
Colin Alevras from The Tasting Room
Cheapavore chef Alevras was the odds-on favorite going into battle, if not for his considerable foraging expertise and cooking talent, then for the amount of time he spends hobnobbing at the city’s Greenmarkets. Like corn in August, he’s such a familiar sight at the Union Square mother ship that one wonders whether he moonlights there on his days off. His menu was brilliantly seasonal and took some chances, starting with the “vinaigrette” he improvised from Flying Pigs Farm bacon and rhubarb juice, for his crunchy salad of raw carrots, burdock, and chives. Right out of the gate, however, a startling confession: “I used Maldon sea salt,” he said sheepishly, taking a big fat penalty point rather than sacrificing flavor or putting money into the coffers of the eco-unfriendly upstate salt mine he found on Google. Next, he unleashed a hog choker, an obscure by-catch that Blue Moon’s Alex Villani would normally throw in for free. “I knew I was going to buy fish,” says Alevras, who ended up paying $3 for two scaly half-pound specimens. “You can always find something for $1 or $2 a pound, and whole fish is cheaper.” Steamed and roasted, the rough-scaled flatfish, named for its habit of lodging in pigs’ throats, was remarkably sweet and creamy, albeit not the meatiest fish in the sea. Anise hyssop made a fragrant garnish for a delicious finale of honey-sweetened strawberries and creamy ricotta.
Pluses: Points for ingenuity and outstanding flavor and a terrific seasonal, summery feel.
Minuses: What Alevras saved on protein for his main course he blew on boutique bacon for his salad. That profligacy ($7.38), plus the 221 miles his honey traveled from Van Etten, New York, to Elizabeth Street, cost him.
Finish: Third place.
CHALLENGER NO. 2
Amanda Freitag from Gusto
Scorecard: Freitag’s brainstorm to substitute crushed Martin’s Pretzels (made from Pennsylvania-milled flour) for breadcrumbs used in and sprinkled across her turkey meatballs was pure genius. “I bought salty things so I wouldn’t have to use salt,” she said. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough and she found herself reaching for the shaker for an extra touch of seasoning. Her terrific appetizer of steamed Long Island clams with zucchini “linguine,” however, required nothing more than a fragrant lovage-infused broth. For her finale, she served a lavender-perfumed cheese from upstate New York’s Brovetto Dairy Farm, with sweet-and-sour cherries simmered in a syrup made from a Hudson Valley sour-cherry cordial. But it was the honey she chose to sweeten the dish that burned up the most food miles for a bittersweet finish.
Pluses: Freitag really pinched pennies, spending less than her rivals and foraging like a true cheapavore, extending her searches beyond Greenmarket to specialty markets like Bierkraft for cheese and Vintage New York for cherry wine.
Minuses: “I really missed olive oil,” says Freitag, and that omission was apparent, perhaps, in the flavor of the turkey meatballs, which might have benefited from being seared in oil. Even though the flour in the pretzels was locally sourced, the salt dusting them wasn’t.
Finish: Second place.
CHALLENGER NO. 3
Bill Telepan from Telepan
Scorecard: Like his peers, Telepan succumbed to the sodium temptation, a discovery we made upon our first bite of creamy (though creamless) corn soup. “I always use salt,” he said, a bit too casually, we thought. Next, a fluffy zucchini-and-tomato frittata big enough for four, served with roasted potatoes and wild arugula. “Normally, I would have used really expensive Tuscan olive oil,” said the chef, who swapped in Ronnybrook Farm Dairy butter. So far, so good, but Telepan lost his way a bit with dessert, a gooseberry-garnished wedge of pan-toasted cornbread bought at Greenmarket but made with cornmeal, butter, flour, sugar, margarine, eggs, and baking powder, all of dubious origin. It tasted delicious and cost only $2, two factors that slightly ameliorated the brazen disregard for provenance. And cornbread aside, he scored big (meaning small) in food miles, thanks in part to sniffing out a honey that hailed from a comparatively short distance (141 miles).
Pluses: Beautifully plated, tasty food struck the right seasonal chord, especially the off-the-beaten-track gooseberries. Telepan placed first in food miles and second in cost by a nose.
Minuses: Salt, like everyone else, and some might take issue with the brunchy nature of the meal, not to mention that one errant cornbread.
Finish: First place.
Chive, burdock, and carrot salad with bacon-rhubarb dressing
Roasted hog chokers with potatoes, corn, tomato, and spring onions
Strawberries with ricotta, honey, and anise hyssop
Total Cost: $21.28
Average Food Miles: 116.5
Mattituck clams with zucchini “linguine” and summer herbs
DiPaolo Farms turkey meatballs with fresh tomato sauce
New York cherry compote with Harpersfield Lavender cheese
Total Cost: $17.15
Average Food Miles: 119.72
Corn soup with scallions and roasted corn
Zucchini-and-tomato frittata with wild arugula and Gold Nugget potatoes
Total Cost: $19.24
Average Food Miles: 111.9