Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Berry Patch at Restoration Farm: A Field of Possibilities

The strawberries at Restoration Farm have gone through a rough patch. Maybe it’s the heavy rain. The plants look a bit trampled. But, I suppose everyone feels a bit downtrodden at times.

I can still remember last season’s pert and iridescent deep red berries. This year, the berries have been smaller and far more tart. Some are odd shapes. You really have to search to find them. I am reminded again that the farm is far from a still life, and every season is a new moment in time.

Head grower Caroline Fanning tells me it’s probably the last week for the strawberries. How did the time go so quickly? She suggests picking two quarts so the remaining berries don’t rot on the vine and loans me a second container. “You’ve really got to put in the time to find them, though,” she advises.

I stoop in a field that appears to have experienced some trauma. Some of the berries are soft, or even moldy from the rain. A woman who is picking nearby says it smells like strawberry wine. If you breathe deep, there is an intense sweet aroma, and here and there, you can still find a perfect gem. Despite the trauma, there is potential and many CSA members are in the field still searching for possibilities.

Glenn Aldridge, the caretaker of the strawberries, tells me to hunt in the heavier growth at the center of the field and I will be rewarded.

“But, I don’t want to trample the plants,” I tell him.

“Trample away,” he says. “In a week and a half, the whole field will be turned under. Next season we start fresh again.”

How many times do you get a free pass to stomp to your heart’s content? And, how often do you get a chance at a fresh start? I need to remember this when I leave the farm. My perseverance unearths nearly two quarts of strawberries.

Although the strawberries may be leaving us too quickly, all over the Sweet Field, there are signs of new possibilities, like deep pink blossoms signaling midsummer blackberries…

And, the first of the blueberries, with just a slight flush of purple visible.

A Gingered Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie (recipe found here) reminds me that while at times it may not be obvious, you can always uncover some sweet possibilities.

And, if the pie happens to crack in half if you’ve tried to move it before it’s sufficiently cooled, remember the lesson from the strawberry field of what’s possible, and turn it into a perfectly acceptable and very tasty strawberry-rhubarb crisp.

©2011 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Foodtrucking Gone to the Dogs?!

After I return from the porcine playground of Chicago, I receive this email from Zany. The subject matter is a first for Culinary Types and requires no commentary on my part, except to say that some of the images you are about to see may be highly disturbing to small pets.

T.W., I hope you’re sitting down for this one.

Let me start by saying that Chicago is on the cusp of summer, and on the day of this story it was a beautiful Friday afternoon. Luigi and I decided to cap the work week by taking The Boss for a leisurely walk to the dog park.

The sun was shining, The Boss was meeting new friends, and Luigi and I were having a light-hearted debate about what to do for dinner. And then it went off. Luigi’s voice was suddenly tuned out like Charlie Brown’s teacher as my radar went wild. The bright yellow truck was slowly making its way around our rectangle park. From a distance I could see writing and graphics on the truck’s side, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the mysterious vehicle. It LOOKED like a food truck – had I slipped on my daily monitoring and missed that a new truck was in town?! Impossible – Mad would’ve had my head.

As the truck turned the corner, my focus remained on it and I stood up. “What is that?” I said to Luigi.

Luigi, who was still rambling about macaroni, turned and said with a little excitement, “Is that a food truck?!” (He’s starting to catch on!)

“Yes it is…for The Boss,” I replied in a small voice. It was a food truck for dogs.

The truck made another turn and the sign “Fido To Go” became very clear. The driver and I made eye contact as she sped along. With a big wave she shouted, “We’re going around the park. We’re going to stop at the coffee shop!”

The yellow truck rolled down the street to make another loop. My eyes continued to follow. “Luigi,” I said slowly. “Do you have your wallet?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“And your iPhone that has the camera?”


“Let’s MOVE.”

The Boss was going to have to play with the Maltese later. Within 30 seconds he was leashed and rushed out of the dog park.

Luigi, who had never been on any type of food truck adventure before, started to break out in hysterics. “I wonder what they HAVE. You should call Mad…no, call T.W.!” he exclaimed as he marched toward the coffee shop, with The Boss’ leash stretched behind him. As far as The Boss knew, we cut his playtime short and he was not going to cooperate.

We finally made it to the parked truck as the side window propped up and the ladies inside were open for business. Before we could even think about looking at the menu, Luigi and I had many questions. What? How? Why? The truck’s co-owner beamed as she explained her partnership with a friend. They both have deep experience in the pet industry and a love for dogs – mixed with a booming food truck scene in Chicago and they had a business model!

I picked up The Boss to examine the snack options as Luigi looked over the menu.

Bones, treats shaped like squirrels, ice cream cones and much more, all in different flavors! The truck even designated one snack a “treat of the month” with proceeds going to a local shelter. And of course, there was doggy yogurt.

While The Boss wouldn’t have minded, I couldn’t exactly use the T.W. “one-of-everything-please” strategy for my 16 pound Chihuahua. So with a little help from the ladies, Luigi and I selected the “puppizza,” the (dog-friendly) chocolate covered squirrel, and a cup of the peanut butter banana yogurt.

We walked back inside the park and offered The Boss a taste of one treat. He pawed at the pizza first, so that’s what he got. He didn’t exactly follow the slow, savory approach to eating the treat, but he quickly turned up and looked for “MORE!”

As we walked back to the apartment, Luigi pulled out the insert in our Fido To Go shopping bag. “You can hire them for dog birthday parties, photo shoots and more. I guess the recession is over,” he cracked.

Later on in the evening, The Boss had samples of the squirrel and the yogurt, both of which also received favorable reviews. And while he couldn’t verbally express his satisfaction after a good food truck experience, I think this picture says it all.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Meating on the Streets of Chicago

I knew this reunion would come sooner or later.

I am standing just north of the Chicago River and I feel a bit like that silver-haired guy from “Mission Impossible.” My covert instructions arrived a day or so earlier via email. The note says: Meating Coordinates: 400 N. Michigan Avenue, just over the bridge. 4 p.m. sharp. Last one there is a vegetable.

So, I get there as early as I can. The girls already think I eat too many green beans during the summer months.

It is a stunning spring afternoon and Chicago is luminous. I look south and spy a lithe, slender figure in dark glasses approaching. It’s Zany! My heart leaps … or is it my stomach growling? It’s often hard to sort out these kinds of inclinations when she is around. We share a big hug.

“Did you fast all day?” she asks. “Because we’ve got big plans.”

Approaching us from the north is that high priestess of carnivores, Mad Me-Shell. The crowd parts as she cuts a path towards us. I haven’t dined with Mad since the dog days of summer 2010 in New York when we shared the notorious adventure of Mr. Pink and the Double Dog. These days, she makes Chicago her personal barbecue pit, and she’s been working diligently to cement her reputation as the Redneck Culinary Aficionado.

My all-time favorite New York food truck expats have spent days instant messaging and organizing our itinerary and have planned a sort of savory scavenger hunt. “Our first stop was suggested by one of your readers, The Food Blogga,” says Mad.

“You can see she spent hours on her research,” cracks Zany.

Mad ignores her and continues. “We’re going to the Purple Pig. It’s an entire pork theme and everything’s fried,” she says with a lusty look in her eyes.

Indeed, the Purple Pig’s catchy slogan is “Cheese, Swine and Wine.” We belly up to the outdoor terrace bar and brace for a porker of a good time.

Zany whips out a large refrigerator magnet depicting a smiling porcine pal. “This is our mascot for the day,” she tells us. “His name is Bacon.”

“Bacon” watches amiably as we proceed to – no pun intended – pig out. Our selection includes an excellent white Burgundy with which we celebrate our reunion.

The wine is paired with what the restaurant calls “a smear” - a lardo crostini, that is a generous serving of pure, luscious fat.

This is followed by a light helping of prosciutto bread balls.

As we eat, they tell me about all the strange and wonderful people they’ve met in the land of Chicago. “We’ve started to find some local watering holes,” says Zany.

“When I first moved to my neighborhood, I realized there were Brazilian barbecue places on practically every corner,” says Mad. “I said, This is my kind of city.”

While food trucks are few and far between, they have struck up a fast friendship with “The Jerky Queen.”

“She’s the latest entrepreneur of dried goods, explains Mad using air quotes.

Our tasting menu culminates with the Purple Pig’s specialty – Fried Deviled Eggs. We order three. Our server is a bit of a Debbie Downer when she hears the number. “They’re kind of rich,” she warns us, but jots down the amount anyway.

“I don’t like people telling me what I can’t eat,” mutters Mad after the server departs.

Needless to say, the Fried Deviled Eggs (which are served in a ceramic pig, as if we needed a reminder of the state of our table manners) are sheer barnyard bliss – the crispy fried coating concealing a perfectly seasoned, molten yolk. With one bite, I’m ready to abandon Manhattan forever.

Zany has selected our next stop, so we grab a cab on Michigan Avenue heading towards Old Town. In the cab, Mad slips into Chamber of Commerce mode. “You may have heard about our fine lake in Chicago, which you’ll see to your right.”

Our destination is the Twin Anchors Tavern and Restaurant. Zany has chosen a perfect fusion of food history, New York and Chicago lore, with a petite helping of barbecue on the side. Twin Anchors was Frank Sinatra’s favorite joint in Chicago in the 1950s. His legendary request was “Ribs, and keep ‘em coming!”

There is a warning posted at the doorway – “Positively No Dancing!” We are seated outside on the sun-drenched pavement. Have you noticed that we never seem to eat indoors? Yet, not a food truck in sight.

We start with a round of beers. Mad orders a can of Gossamer Half Acre, from a local Chicago brewery.

“That’s a lot classier that the brands Mad usually drinks,” says Zany.

Zany gives the menu a cursory glance. “I don’t give a #$*%! about the fish fry. We’re here for the ribs!”

Mad is a purist. She’s not totally sold on the Midwest barbecue style.

“We’re not in North Carolina,” replies Zany. “It’s time for you to embrace the culture.”

Drinks are followed by a sublime order of pulled pork sliders.

I am quickly reminded that there is a level of decorum that must be maintained when dining with Mad Me-Shell. I’m having a little trouble handling my slider.

“T.W., did you just use a fork with your pork slider?” asks Mad, aghast.

“I dropped some pulled pork on the plate,” I mumble sheepishly. “I didn’t want it to go to waste.”

Then, in the grand tradition of the Chairman of the Board, we order Twin Anchor’s slow cooked Baby Back Ribs, both the spicy barbecue version and a serving with the mild option. Zany wants to make sure we get our vegetables, so she includes an order of onion rings and a serving of spinach with pepper jack cheese. When Zany spots the waiter approaching with several plates the size of skateboards she gasps, “Oh my God!”

“God Bless America,” murmurs Mad Me-Shell.

We tackle the ribs as if they were our final meal. The barbecue sauce is a perfect blend of smoky and sweet, and the meat is like hot, melted butter. There is more conversation as we eat. Mad bemoans the current dating scene. “All the good carnivores are taken,” she complains.

Finally, Zany drops the last rib bone on top of our collection. There is a reverential moment of silence.

“You know what would really make this meal?” asks Mad. “Wet Naps!”

No sooner said than done:

We wisely decide to walk to our final destination for dessert. Along the way, Zany has an immediate fascination with one local establishment.

The Fudge Pot is the perfect coda to our gracious evening of gluttony.

We take our sweets to the street again, and sit at a sidewalk café table. Zany waxes philosophical. “Anything dipped in chocolate is just as good as anything fried.”

It is Mad Me-Shell who offers the benediction. She ticks off the evening’s menu items, sits back, and sighs with contentment and murmurs, “Well done.”

The banquet has lasted nearly four hours. The time has flown, but it is time to say goodbye.

“I hope you’re full,” are Zany’s final words to me.

I jump in the car that will return me to my hotel, and watch from the window as the sun sets and Mad and Zany vanish into the crowd of nighttime revelers. I feel just like “King for a Day.” Perhaps “Butcher for a Day” is more appropriate. The adventure – and the infusion of protein – will do much to fortify me in the days ahead.

Many thanks, my friends. Until we meat again.

©2011 T.W. Barrit All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Field of Greens at Restoration Farm

The heat wave has broken, the haze has cleared, and I wake to a glorious late spring morning. It is not just the rejuvenating weather that makes me smile. It is my first distribution of vegetables at Restoration Farm and the abundance of fresh spring greens brings a sense of renewal and promise as well.

I arrive early to help with the morning harvest. I am more experienced after several years as a CSA member, but there is more I can do. I am committed to helping more at the farm this season, learning about pasture raised chickens and fresh herbs, cooking more kale in creative ways and getting to know more of the volunteers who make up the community.

I always enjoy chatting with head grower Dan Holmes to get insights into the rhythms of the farm. The addition of animals has changed the pace. There are more people passing through, and there’s a level of excitement. And he, as the farmer, is constantly gauging and assessing and building on the collective events and experiences that take root in the soil. The farm is ever a work in progress.

Dan pairs me up with Leslie, a regular volunteer, and we begin to harvest spinach. I’ve never picked spinach before, and Leslie teaches me that you pick the large, outer leaves, allowing the new leaves to fill in the center of the plant. I learn that Leslie has a brick oven, loves to read books about food, and wants to learn more about baking bread. We agree to compare notes. A warm breeze buffets the field, tugging at my t-shirt as I stoop to gather spinach. In a short time, we have filled four milk crates with luscious green leaves.

Next we are joined by Dennis and move to the field of kale and Swiss chard.

We pluck the leaves and gather them into large bouquets for the afternoon distribution.

We take a jaunty ride on the back hatch of the truck to the garlic field at the north end of the historic village. I haven’t visited the field since last October when we planted hundreds of cloves. Now, the tall green shoots are waist high. We harvest the long curly garlic scapes at the center of each cluster. My fingers are fragrant with garlic.

Our pastured chickens are showing great progress. I’m amazed at how quickly they’ve grown in a few short weeks, simply by foraging in the fields.

Tricia, who is managing the Hardscrabble Chickens project, has been researching techniques and learning as much as she can to assure the best possible results when the first share of chickens is harvested. There is already a second flock of broilers in the brooder that will soon move to the field. It is a rare and special opportunity to be able to have a conversation with someone who has put so much thought, care, energy and enthusiasm into raising a product that I will eventually cook and eat.

There is an unexpected pleasure. While they weren’t anticipated for a week or two, the strawberries in the Sweet Field have ripened quickly in the past several days. I eat my first warm, juicy berry in the field and leave with a brimming quart of dazzling red fruit.

At the afternoon distribution the tables are a vision of greens.

For my evening meal, I celebrate the first spring harvest with an enormous just-picked salad of fresh spinach leaves garnished with orange slices, red onion and hard cooked egg. I eat the strawberries for dessert, au natural.

Greetings to the 2011 growing season at Restoration Farm. It feels just like a warm and welcoming spring sunrise.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved