As a child growing up in Hampton Bays, Michael Rozzi enjoyed the pastoral life many children on the East End experience. He fished, shucked local oysters and drove with his grandfather to The Milk Pail Country Store in Water Mill to pick up bags of local apples, jars of cider and the coveted apple cider donuts the Halsey family has produced for generations.
“That is where my connection to local food really began,” Rozzi said last week, sitting on an apple crate at the Halsey family farm and orchard next to Mecox Bay. “Growing up here, it was a no-brainer as a chef to connect with local farmers to get more local produce on restaurant tables.”
For over a decade, Rozzi, the executive chef at East Hampton’s Della Femina restaurant, has crafted a culinary tradition focused on seasonal, local food. Through that commitment, he has developed a lasting relationship with Jennifer Halsey-Dupree, a 12th generation member of the Halsey family who along with her sister Amy, father John and mother Evelyn, run The Milk Pail Country Store, Farm Stand and Orchard – a family farming tradition that began in 1640.
For both Halsey-Dupree and Rozzi, observing the Slow Food movement take root on the East End over the last decade has been like watching food culture come full circle, as dinner tables now boast the same local fare they grew up enjoying. The popularity of Slow Food has given local farmers the ability to expand their breadth of offerings, with chefs using local fruit and produce to craft culinary delicacies that offer visitors and residents alike a taste of the East End.
“If pears are in season, we do pears. If cranberry beans and spinach are here, that is what we are using in the restaurant,” said Rozzi. “Right now, it is a lot of cabbage, potatoes, and root vegetables. You have to cook what they grow and you have to be brave enough to cross that line.”
While The Milk Pail has recently started delivering to East Hampton, Rozzi’s wife, Holly Dove, the pastry chef at Della Femina, often finds herself at The Milk Pail Orchard, picking up fruit for the restaurant. Rozzi believes that kind of interaction creates a closer connection to the food.
“And it’s kind of fun,” he added. “It’s the finger on the pulse kind of thing. We see what is going on at the farm, you see the operation, how they run things here. I have learned so much about seasons and farming and weather, what grows when, and people are amazed when you can take them to that next level.”
“But while I am a chef, I also grew up out here, so this is a part of me,” he continued. “It is for all of us. We know when the strawberries are in season and when to eat squash. For me, I have always enjoyed being in touch with what people are doing on this side of the industry. It’s also about patronizing local businesses – it’s a cycle. Jen comes to dinner at the restaurant, I buy her apples, she tells people about the restaurant, I tell people about her fruit. There is a reciprocity to it all.”
Halsey-Dupree admitted Della Femina is a special place for her family to dine, mostly because as someone who grew up eating chickens and beef from her own family farm, she trusts the quality of product used at the restaurant, knowing much of it is locally sourced, and all menu options are carefully selected.
It is rare for the menu at Della Femina to not boast an offering from The Milk Pail, and Halsey-Dupree’s apples, peaches, blueberries, pears and cherries are not just reserved for dessert.
The restaurant regularly serves crisps and cobblers with Halsey fruit, but also uses them for savory dishes, like its staple seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, accompanied with a variety of fruit compotes and sauces throughout the year, changing with the seasons. Rozzi said he also enjoys pairing the fruits with pork.
“I think the thing you hear the most about is the apples and the peaches,” said Rozzi. “That stuff is great and is a mainstay on our menu, but personally I love their cherries.”
Rozzi uses Milk Pail cherries in a roasted oyster mushroom salad with Mecox Bay Dairy Gruyere cheese, apples and summer truffle vinaigrette. He also uses the cherries in a Foie Gras preparation, employing a cherry basil salad to offset the savory delicacy with sweetness and acidity.
“It beats the heck out of a raisin and it is fresh, not out of the box,” said Rozzi. “And it is marketable. Bridgehampton Milk Pail Cherries – you could put that on a slice of pizza and probably sell it.”
At a Paumanok Vineyards Harvest Wine Dinner held at Della Femina in early November, Rozzi took a step further with Milk Pail product, using peach wood cut at the orchard to smoke local stripped bass for a stripped bass, local scallop terrine, resulting in a seafood sausage-like dish with a smoky, savory and sweet flavor. He uses the same technique for the restaurant’s house cured smoked salmon, which is served at Sunday brunch.
Striving to create new dishes and combinations using local products is one of Rozzi’s passions as a chef, and taking time to open up the culinary minds of his patrons, say by explaining that combining varieties of apples in a crisp will bring out layers of flavor not found in the traditional, Granny Smith style dessert, is at the forefront of his mission.
“We throw in a few Fuji for sweetness, a Granny Smith to keep it tart,” said Rozzi. “People like to be told things like that – their eyes light up.”
“And people enjoy that we take the time to do that,” agreed Halsey-Dupree. “That is why I go to your restaurant. I like variety, and I am more apt to try something new because I trust the product. That is the type of business you and I are in – it has always been about the quality.”
Local Milk Pail Flemish Pear Crisp
Recipe by Holly Dove, pastry chef at Della Femina
5 ½ cups All-purpose flour
1 cup Brown sugar
1/3 c Granulated sugar
3 c Quick oats
½ tsp Salt
1 and ¾ pounds Unsalted Butter, diced and chilled
6 Cups Pears-Peeled, cored, diced (about 5 pounds)
1 cup Brown Sugar
2 tablespoons All Purpose flour
1/2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Salt
1 tablespoon Lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup currants/raisins (optional)
In mixer mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients for crumb topping and mix on low with paddle attachment. Add chilled butter and separate into smaller pieces. On low speed, cut in butter until mixture is combined and there are small clusters of dough. Break up and large pieces, place crumb topping in separate bowl cover and chill. The crumb topping may be made a day or two ahead.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. In large bowl, combine diced pears, brown sugar, all-purpose flour, cinnamon, salt, vanilla extract and lemon juice and mix well. Spoon mixture into greased dish or Brulèe ramekins into heaping mounds. Generously spoon crumb topping on top and place into oven on baking sheet. Bake for 45minutes to one hour, until topping is golden brown and pears are slightly bubbling.