The Natural

Natural 2 Joan BernsteinJulie Jacobs didn’t set out to be a cook. Especially not one on Long Island. The Wantagh native earned a degree in music from Ithaca College, where she fell hard for bucolic upstate. Looking for work after graduation, she prepped food in the kitchen at Wagner Vineyards in the Finger Lakes, then managed the deli at the Ithaca institution Green Star Co-op, and prepared macrobiotic meals as a personal chef. (She wasn’t a complete amateur. In college, Jacobs occasionally ran an underground café with other friends who enjoyed cooking.)

However, her true calling — and homecoming — would have to wait until she launched By Nature’s Hand with her cousin, chef Todd Jacobs of Atlantica and Tierra Mar in Westhampton Beach. The fledgling company prepares refrigerated, delicious, ready-to-eat organic vegetarian meals for local health food emporiums like Green Earth Grocer in Riverhead; Wholly Natural in East Moriches; Garden of Eve in Riverhead, and Westhampton Natural Foods and Westhampton Farmers Market in Westhampton Beach. In fact, it was farmer Eve Kaplan who persuaded Jacobs that there was a niche market for “healthy takeout;” so with Todd’s personal and professional involvement with local agriculture and organic farming—demonstrated by his earthy yet sophisticated menus at both restaurants—and his commercial kitchen, By Nature’s Hand was a natural extension of the cousins’ abilities. “Eastern Long Island is like being upstate but it has the ocean,” Jacobs says.

Before Jacobs returned to the island, she had no idea that she and Jacobs “shared the same ideology and were passionate about the same things.” Because of their age gap, they didn’t know each other well. However, By Nature’s Hand is a symbiotic relationship. “Todd has the reputation and the facility, so he does the front work, the legwork, the ordering,” Jacobs says, “but we brainstorm together, feed off each others’ ideas.” And Jacobs does the cooking.

Natural 1 Joan BernsteinShe began preparing the appealing meals for distribution last September, using recipes and menus the two created. The idea behind the macro meal, for instance, is to create a savory combination of components that meets the macrobiotic emphasis on whole grains and lots of vegetables: beans for protein, whole-grain soba noodles for carbs and fiber; root and green vegetables for essential vitamins and minerals. It all starts with choosing the freshest seasonal and organic ingredients available and revealing their essence without excessive tampering. The basic philosophy is comparable to organic gardening with native plants, which rely on their natural environment for life and survival.

“I love the simplicity,” Jacobs says. ”Maple syrup and soy sauce, for instance, an amazing combination. Concentrated flavor. Nothing elaborate. The beauty in the macro meal is in the tasty balance of the six or seven components,” which  Jacobs assembles with precision in a minuet of movement among the other cooks in the cavernous restaurant kitchen. Once these orders are complete, she is free to focus on other items on the menu: grilled vegetable medley, wheat-free banana bread or skillet corn bread (which contain eggs and dairy, but utilizes wheat-free and low-gluten spelt flour (a descendent of ancient kamut and einkorn wheats); vegetable sushi or vegan brown rice pudding; or perhaps one of several soups, dressings, salsas, even brownies. Salads, a medley of local organic mesclun greens with variations that add to the color and crunch are popular even with customers who eschew vegetarianism, but love great salads, including Julie’s sassy pickled beets, which just get better as they mellow in the refrigerator (if they last that long after the first taste).

Julie and Todd provided a teaser of their organic aesthetic at last fall’s Garlic and Harvest Festival at the Garden of Eve in Riverhead. Enthusiastic crowds devoured hundreds of pounds of Yukon Gold garlic mashed potatoes and crate upon crate of brightly dressed salad greens topped with grilled sea scallops. The cooking cousins are looking forward to a return engagement September 27 and 28, 2008. Meanwhile, Julie will be jarring salsa, dressings, ketchup and other popular products for sale at the fair, as well as at the Westhampton Beach Farmers Market, which runs every Saturday morning from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., June 21 to November 15. So stop by and say “Hi!”

Editor’s note:  By Nature’s Hand, Atlantica and Tierra Mar have closed.