Eating invasives: Cleveland’s Larder Deli doing good for the environment

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Even from the outside you can tell there is something unique about Larder Delicatessen and Bakery in Ohio City. The handmade sign reading, ‘Est. 2018’, and the 125-old historic firehouse turned restaurant are early signs that the place is not your typical deli.

A blender buzzes in the background, pastrami is sliced and chicken bubbles in the fryer during the weekday lunch service. Larder co-owner and Chef Jeremy Umansky and his team of uniquely-talented chefs and bakers turn out inventive Eastern European-inspired sandwiches, pastries and cured meats.

“Braise it and then cut it thick just like a thick-cut bacon,” said Kenny Scott, co-owner and chef, as he cut and wraps a sandwich.

The restaurant’s list of awards from local and national food critics seems to perpetually grow. This year, Larder, 1455 W. 29th St., was named a semifinalist for ‘Best New Restaurant’ by the James Beard Foundation and recognized as one of America’s best Jewish delis by Food & Wine Magazine.

In just the one year that Larder has been open, it has quickly become a local favorite, voted Best New Restaurant and Best Deli in the Cleveland Scene readers’ poll.

But possibly more important than crafting the perfect mouth-watering fried chicken is Umansky’s personal commitment to defending the environment against invasive species.

“I’m in my -30s, when I’m in my mid-50s do I want to hear from my daughter, hey, someone could have done something about this, why didn’t it happen?” He said.

Japanese knotweed is a nasty invasive plant destroying the local ecosystem. It is a known problem all across Northeast Ohio even in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and is reported to have contributed to the collapse of the hillside at Irishtown Bend in Cleveland.

Umansky sees his restaurant as part of the solution.

“We take the knotweed, some of those trimmings, and we pack it on sugar,” he explained.

You may find knotweed used similarly to rhubarb in pastries like scones, pies and pop tarts at Larder.

Many of the invasives on Larder’s menu grow right outside its doors in the Hingetown neighborhood of Ohio City. They are also likely in many other neighborhoods around Northeast Ohio, but you do need a professional or expert to tell you which ones are safe to eat and how to identify them.

Umansky showed us a massive patch of knotweed and the aggressive invasive, mugwort, growing near his restaurant.

“They’ve crowded out this habitat so much that the native and naturalized plans that would thrive here if this was a pristine natural setting they can hardly grow and reproduce,” he explained.

Invasives block the sun from other plants and rob the soil of vital nutrients impacting worms, birds and insects.

“Something so beautiful is so destructive,” Umansky says, as he cut a shoot of knotweed.

In the kitchen, knotweed is a free, delicious and healthy product that Umansky dries like a raisin or ferments.

“We can chop this up use it in any recipe that calls for pickles,” he explains. “When we pickle it, we get the pickling liquid, which we can then save and brine some chicken in there or some turkey.”

Or for a recipe that needs a little spice, the invasive known as garlic mustard, is around the corner.

“Even the root on this is something we use, the root has these horseradish like qualities,” Umansky said.

“We’re taking a fish that a lot of people view as a garbage fish or a trash fish, and we’re turning it into something that’s delicious that you’re going to want to eat,” he said.

Gefilte fish is a traditional Eastern European dish of ground fish, spices and herbs typically served as an appetizer. Umansky transforms the dish into a burger served on a homemade bun with cheese, special sauce and fresh greens.

So if you’re lunching at Larder, take a closer look at what you’re ordering, it may be doing a whole lot more than filling you up.

“You’re actually contributing to a positive ecological act just by eating this and it’s fantastic. I mean how much simpler can doing good for the earth be?” Umansky said.

The chefs at Larder host foraging classes throughout the summer to teach people how to identify and use edible plants. For more information, click here. 

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