By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Nov 05, 2008 at 8:27 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

It's the way a grilled ear of corn tastes on at your Fourth of July cookout. It's that cup of warm apple cider on Thanksgiving. There's a reason we associate certain foods with specific times of the year. It's when they're freshest and in their prime. Ideally, it's the only time they should be eaten.

But that's not how we Americans eat. Thanks to mega supermarkets and huge, commercial food distributors, we're able to enjoy almost any fruit or vegetable during the Wisconsin winter because it's shipped thousands of miles from South America or elsewhere.

The system is not only wasteful and harmful to the environment, but it also rips off consumers in the taste and nutrition departments. Produce is at its peak when it's ripe, which is why more and more restaurant owners and chefs are steering away from the Syscos of the world and turning to providers in their own region for fresh, local, seasonal foods.

It's a national trend and here in Milwaukee, several restaurateurs are beginning to cook seasonally and shape their menus around what Mother Nature giveth. With autumn well under way and winter on the horizon, late-season vegetables like squash and potatoes are appearing in creative ways, and rich cheese and sage brown butters are compiling our comfort foods.

Peter Sandroni, owner and executive chef at La Merenda, 125 E. National Ave., tries to revamp his menu quarterly to reflect the changing seasons. While there are some dishes that are permanent fixtures at the international tapas restaurant -- the sambal goring udang, an Indian shrimp dish with tomatoes, coconut milk, ginger and sambal; tostones, fried plantain chips served with salsa verde and guacamole and the Argentinean style beef, grilled tenderloin marinated in chimichurri sauce served over mashed sweet plantains with crushed walnuts -- the rest of the menu is a carefully planned environmental practice.

Sandroni rolled out an autumnal menu in late October that is ripe with weather-appropriate offerings.

His summery spicy shrimp and pineapple ceviche has been replaced with a scallop ceviche, featuring fish marinated in fresh citrus juices, mixed with red bell peppers, scallions, cilantro and coconut milk. It sounds a tad tropical, but Sandrone points out that the scallions, cilantro and peppers are all locally-sourced.

"We try to buy as much local food as we can," he says. "I just got back from the West Allis Farmers Market with the last of the carnival squash. We did a ravioli last year and it was a big hit so we're doing it again this fall."

The ravioli takes a classic Italian recipe, which mixes squash with nutmeg and Amaretti cookies, and adds Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and sage brown butter to make a rich and creamy cool weather meal.

La Merenda's winter menu continues in this tradition, boasting items like roasted beet salad -- Sandroni then uses the leftover beet juice to dye his ravioli red; look for it during the holidays -- trout from Rushing Waters farms in Palmyra, and his new favorite dish, lamb briouats: Strauss meat braised in Moroccan spices stuffed in phyllo dough.

La Merenda is a member of Milwaukee's Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA), a system started by Braise Culinary School and funded by a "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" grant that connects local farmers and restaurants to keep food spending within the state's economy. A significant portion of Sandrone's produce sources from Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek and other area farms.

Robin Kasch, owner of Café Manna, 3815 N. Brookfield Rd., is another RSA member and rolls out a newly expanded menu in the next couple weeks.

Hearty highlights include three-bean chili, made with three beans, mushrooms, onions, sweet corn, green chilies and vegetable protein.

"I affectionately call it the meat-lover's vegetarian chili," says Kasch. "Nobody can tell the difference. It is so thick and the vegetable protein that's in there has the consistency of ground beef."

Many of the restaurant's original recipes were from Kasch's personal stash, and she works closely with her team of chefs -- Sandor Csiki, Ben Cullen, Joslyn Killey -- to create seasonal selections, such as the new flatbread pizza -- sun-dried tomato pesto or basil pesto atop a crunchy, crispy piece of flatbread, with toppings of your choice.

The Jamaican-spiced burger has been turned into a loaf with a demi-glaze and roasted vegetables and whipped potatoes, and acorn squash has been stuffed with a vegetable risotto, and surrounded by steamed spinach.

"I'd love to do it year-round," she says, "but of course, squash isn't a year-round thing. We are part of the RSA and I want to support local farmers, so whatever is part of the growing season is what we will have at our disposal."

Supporting local farmers is great and reducing food's travel is significantly gentler on the environment -- as well as your pocket book -- but there is another big reason chefs pay attention to yearly patterns: in-season food tastes better.

"It is so important that you cook seasonally for a few reasons," says Intercontinental Milwaukee's executive chef Robert Ash, who has been at the helm of Kilawat for the past two years.

"You obtain the freshest ingredients out there at the peak of their freshness and they are so full of flavor. Would you buy a watermelon in the middle of winter? The same goes for fall ingredients. We buy apples, pears, squash and wild game in the fall from local vendors that really showcase the high quality -- flavors become more prevalent when they are harvested during the proper season."

Ash alters his menu two or three times a year and some of his favorite fall foods include earthy squashes, mushrooms, root vegetable, "spices that warm the heart" and game meats. Last week he unveiled his fall-times feasting items, which include a scallop dish with a herb-infused parsnip puree, porcini mushrooms and a red wine glaze, a Strauss lamb osso bucco with a barley risotto and baby root vegetables, and Wisconsin cheese fondue.

If you're looking to dine out this coming holiday, he has put together a Thanksgiving menu for Thursday, Nov. 27 that features organic turkey ravioli and Labelle Farms duck confit for starters, followed by porcini-rubbed Strauss lamb loin and Diestel Farms turkey breast and finishing with a spiced pumpkin tart for dessert.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”