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Happy Valley chefs speak out: Their seasonal favorites
STATE COLLEGE – Many restaurants in the Happy Valley area operate on a similar foundation: fresh, local, quality ingredients. Being surrounded by a booming agricultural community makes that formula easy to achieve; it also makes for seriously delicious, fresh cuisine available to order at any time of the year.
Coming up with fresh and exciting new items year-round is a tall order, but there is nothing that the talented chefs of these State College restaurants would rather be doing. We spoke with a few of the masterminds who bring the ingredients to life to find out how they do it, and what we can expect in 2018.
Harrison’s Wine Grill and Catering
Chef: Harrison Schailey
“Local, seasonal, globally inspired” is the motto of Harrison’s Wine Grill and Catering, and all three of those pillars come together to give Harrison’s menu its signature flare.
“The core of our motto is about the creative challenge of taking familiar ingredients and using them in unfamiliar and exciting ways,” says Chef Harrison Schailey, who has been serving locally sourced food in State College since 2001. He works with the mindset of providing the best quality ingredients to customers and supporting local producers at the same time.
In addition to “local,” Harrison’s takes “seasonal” and “global” just as seriously. Along with its regular full menu, a new feature menu is offered every month, each inspired by different regions throughout the world. February’s feature menu is Rustic Italian, inspired by authentic Italian cuisine and made up of local ingredients like Fasta artichoke ravioli and local beef meatballs. Harrison’s will offer special menus for Penn State’s spring graduation weekend in May — you can view the menus and request a reservation now at www.harrisonsmenu.com. As for what else is to come in 2018, Schailey will be traveling to Spain and Portugal this spring, so guests can surely expect a taste of the dishes that inspire him there.
Ultimately, though, Schailey believes that when such high-quality ingredients are available like they are in Happy Valley, the beauty is often in the simplicity of dishes.
“The freshness and quality of the ingredients really get to take a lead role,” he says. “Food doesn’t have to be complicated to be delicious.”
Otto’s Pub and Brewery / Barrel 21
Chef: Chris Mohr
It’s all about the absolute freshest ingredients for sister establishments Otto’s Pub and Brewery and Barrel 21, with Head Chef Chris Mohr at the helm of both. Otto’s serves up fresh new specials every single week, and its regular menu is updated twice a year to incorporate seasonal ingredients and new concoctions. Barrel 21 always has an offering of seasonal cocktails, and even the menu for its famous brunch rotates weekly. It’s all made possible through the many local producers the two restaurants work with. Their company farmer, Steve Spanelli, is hard at work year-round to provide fresh produce for every season.
“It takes a ton of work to make this happen, but when (Spanelli) walks through the door with his produce that was harvested a few hours before, it is all worth it,” Mohr says. “His hard work translates to the dishes that are served to our guests.”
Coming up with new items each season is a careful art of balancing current food trends with produce that is at its peak during that window (for instance, the fantastic roasted Brussels sprouts pizzas Otto’s has been tossing up this winter).
“In many cases, simple dishes that highlight these products when they are in season work the best,” Mohr says. “We do our best to get those items to the plate and let them shine.”
In 2018, Otto’s and Barrel 21 customers can anticipate an even larger variety of seasonal products, says Mohr. The restaurants already have special items planned for Fat Tuesday, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, and as always, the delicious surprises will keep coming all year long.
“The most unique thing about being a chef in Happy Valley is how much agriculture continues to be the driving force, as it has for hundreds of years,” says Mohr.
He knows that it can be easy to take food ingredients for granted, but to live and work in an area as agriculturally rich as Happy Valley is something truly special.
“I can very easily make a number of dishes in our kitchens that come exclusively from Centre County,” Mohr says. “We are very fortunate to have so many amazing farms around us.”=
The Field Burger & Tap
Chef: Bradley Hansen
You may find it hard to believe that this coming fall will mark just three years since The Field Burger & Tap first graced State College with its presence, since the restaurant has become such a community favorite that it feels as if it’s been here forever. Ever since The Field’s opening, the fresh ingredients and totally unique dishes have been the backbone of its refreshingly simple yet always changing menu.
Executive Sous Chef Bradley Hansen says that The Field already has big plans in store for the coming months. They expect to introduce their new menu in February, followed by a spring refresh of the menu in April. On March 20, The Field will host an extra-special beer dinner event with its partners at Rusty Rail Brewing Company (based out of Mifflinburg). The special menu and more details will be announced soon, and The Field hopes to plan more fun events like it in the near future.
“We are hoping to turn this into a summer series of events,” Hansen says, “with different local partners and different styles of events.”
In the meantime, customers can (as always) look forward to The Field’s ever-changing and ever-scrumptious burgers and fries of the week. With these creative and sinfully delicious combinations — think fries smothered in toppings like cheesesteak or parmesan and pesto, and burgers topped with anything from a fried pierogi to Lobster Newburg — The Field has something fun and fresh to offer each and every week.
So where does all of this inspiration come from? According to Chef Hansen, it comes from all around Happy Valley.
“We have the privilege of working with lots of local farms and vendors,” he says. “We incorporate as much seasonal produce as possible, using local vendors whenever possible.”
The Field’s staff members are always coming up with ideas for features, and items that are well received by guests often become permanent menu items. And the people of Happy Valley provide plenty of motivation to consistently produce extraordinary food.
“Having a large student following pushes us to constantly be evolving the menu, trying to stay ahead of trends,” Hansen says. “There is also lots of competition in the area, pushing us every day to do our best.”
Nittany Lion Inn
Chef: Kirsch McMaster
At the Nittany Lion Inn, A la Carte Sous Chef Kirsch McMaster is already getting excited about the harvest of fresh, local produce he’ll get to use in the kitchen this spring and summer.
“Early spring will bring us asparagus, snow peas, spring onions, spinach and radishes,” he says.
And for each in-season item, McMaster has a multitude of ways to work his magic and incorporate them into phenomenal dishes. Watermelon radishes, for instance — which he describes as “vibrant, peppery and sweet” — are a particular favorite of his. He likes to sauté or roast them to serve as a side dish, pickle them, or simply serve them raw in a salad.
When summer arrives in Happy Valley, McMaster will be looking forward to working with lots of delectable local corn and squash.
“As everyone in Central PA knows, the end of June brings local sweet corn,” he says. “I mean, what’s not to love about that!”
He is also determined for his customers to experience the beautiful summer squash available at that time — which he believes are sometimes missed out on by consumers, since it can be difficult to know where to find good ones or how to prepare them. He even shares a tip for consumers at home: to pick up some local patty pan squash or baby squash and simply sauté them in some locally made butter, salt and pepper.
“They are always so sweet and tender,” he says.
It’s also important to remember, McMaster says, that local producers have greenhouses to grow fresh produce all year long, and that there is always something tasty in season.
“Check back at your local farmers market over the colder months,” he suggests. “They will have something fresh to offer. It’s out there if you look for it.”
Nittany Lion Inn guests can taste great seasonal and local ingredients any time on the regular menu, but the Inn’s many special events feature even more seasonal options. Be sure to visit the Nittany Lion Inn for their PA on the Patio series every Friday in the summer, their Tastes of the World Wine Dinner Series (“A Stop in Spain” is coming up on March 21-22), their Steakhouse Saturdays or their popular Sunday brunch.
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