Fresh Mex

Patrons at Mexican restaurants in the U.S. usually don’t expect the seasons to drive the menu. But at Orale Mexican Kitchen in Jersey City, N.J., sourcing local, seasonal produce is a priority of consulting chef James Muir—and his menu reflects it. About 85 percent of the produce he buys is local, although Muir admits that availability does start changing in mid-November. Right now, winter squash and pumpkin are finding their way into dishes, as well as kale, Brussels sprouts, pears and apples. “We try to break the culinary boundaries of ‘Mexican’ and have some fun with the menu, even incorporating Mexican flavors into classics from another cuisine,” he says.

The 70-seat Orale is primarily a small plates concept serving shareable food. The menu begins with Bocadillos—Mexican snacks—that go for $5 apiece and feature lots of seasonal produce. Brussels sprouts are quartered and deep fried, then tossed in salt and pepper, and butternut squash is cooked, puréed, then topped with queso fresco, chorizo and a chili glaze “to counteract the sweetness of the squash.”

In the Enchiladas y Ensaladas category ($15 each), Orale features a vegetarian option, filled with roasted spaghetti squash, shiitake mushrooms and sautéed spinach and kale. “We want to accommodate vegetarian and vegan diners with special items—not just the standard vegetable plate,” notes Muir. He takes pains to balance the flavors here to create a satisfying dish; the squash adds texture and sweetness that complements the bitterness of the greens and the shiitakes contribute richness and earthiness.

Seasonal vegetables make it into the “Mains” section of the menu, too. Halibut a la Plancha is served with yellow rice spiked with saffron and achiote; diced pumpkin adds another warm burst of color and an autumnal accent. Bone-in lamb ribs coated with a tamarind-chili glaze are sided with sweet and spicy butternut squash.

“In fall and winter, we offer more comforting dishes and try to change the menu so we’re not reliant on produce that’s not local,” Muir says. Of course, Mexican cuisine essentials, such as avocados, chilies and jicama, have to be brought in from afar, but thanks to an active network of New Jersey farmers, more is being grown locally.

Muir relies on two primary produce purveyors that source from local farms. He plans to start working directly with some farmers by spring. In the meantime, the chef is busy making fresh pumpkin pesto and tomatillo chipotle compote to freshen up the winter menu.   

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