Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What farm dinner was that?

With bus and crew reunited in Cheyenne, WY we set out across the High Plains, bound for Minnesota and Cedar Summit Farm. Passing through central Iowa we experienced our first midwest severe thunderstorm. “Severe thunderstorm” meant constant lightning, strong winds, heavy rain and pulling over the bus because of zero visibility. A lot of excitement! We observed swirling low clouds and later learned of funnel clouds seen in the area. Good thing our Friday farm dinner is in the next state to the North, where fair weather is forecast.

We rolled into Minneapolis for a late dinner with our guest chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table. Scott showed us around the restaurant and gave us the last minute menu changes.

Friday dawned with a deep blue sky as we made our way to Cedar Summit. Cedar Summit is Jim’s dream come true for a dinner site: a big green grassy field. We’ve seen every kind of site over the past nine years, but never a field of green grass. Truly we would be “Out Standing in the Field”. The field had been unoccupied by the Cedar Summit dairy herd for several weeks and therefore had a tall, lush carpet for our long table.

Co-guest chef Lenny Russo arrived as we arranged our table in the field. Lenny last prepared an Outstanding in the Field dinner in 2005, the year that Jim and the bus both didn’t show up because of a breakdown in the Yukon of Canada. In 2005 remaining Outstanding staff was flown ahead to put on the meal. This time both Jim and the bus showed up.

Brian Ellison of Death’s Door Spirits mixed fresh cocktails as guests arrived: delicious! Brian was in for the entire farm dinner marthon weekend and would be a part of all three events from Minnesota to Illinois. His is based out of Washington Island, WI and locally sources all ingredients for his spirits as well as the cocktail mixes. On the bar list that night were the Vodka Cobbler with fresh berries and Maple Whiskey Punch with fresh cream from Cedar Summit.

As the dinner progressed, Dave Minar released his just-milked dairy cows into the pasture surrounding the table. Cowbells rang out as the nearly full moon rose on a warm upper midwest evening.

Fountain Prairie, Madison, WI

After packing up the dinner we managed to get a few hours in on the road and landed at a rest stop in Wisconsin. After a few winks Leah cracked the whip with an early wake up of 7 am. We all argued about reasons to sleep in, but Leah would have none of it. A few hours later we pulled into Fountain Prairie Farm. Fountain Prairie has “hairy cows”, more officially known as Scottish Highland Cattle, a breed that is well suited to the cold winters of Wisconsin. John and Dorothy Priske greeted us as soon as we pulled up. They were anxious to show us a potential dinner site on a hillside looking over their reclaimed prairie lands. Another amazing site!

John and Dorothy have a bed and breakfast on their ranch and soon after the dinner sold out, they had a notice posted on their website that the bed and breakfast was also booked for the evening.

After greeting the guests under a tall tree next to the farmhouse the group took a tour of the ranch and set out for a trek to the hillside dinner site. The table was set within the tall grass prairie, gently following a curve of the clearing.

Chef Tory Miller of L’Etoile in Madison prepared a delicious meal including a “surprise course”: Fountain Prairie ribeye grilled over the coals with fresh herbs. Jim walked around the table with Rink DaVee (Shooting Star Farm), Willi Lehner (Bleu Mont Dairy) and George Kohn (West Star Farms) as farmers shared stories with guests.

A spectacular sunset blazed as the full moon rose to light the evening. Sated guests rode back to the farmhouse on bleachers pulled by tractors- a novel ending to a farm dinner.

Two down, two to go.

The crew is tired but still very excited about the rest of the weekend. The bus is running well but Ben’s developed a serious limp from muscling the bus down the highway. Now that the bus is with us, Aubrey is reunited with her ‘Bedazzler’ and Jim has benefited with personalized boxer shorts with a flashy “J”. Serious and hardworking culinary interns Anna Lena and Annette are still trooping along and putting up with our shenanigans.

On Saturday we found our way to Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, IL.

Our late morning arrival saw farmer Lloyd Nichols with his engine revved, ready to tow us around the farm to find the best site. What an exciting ride! The verdict was the table would be in the orchard, aligned with the a view of the highest mountains in Illinois (at 800 feet, not so high).

Nichols Farm guest chef Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate Restaurant in Chicago wins the prize this season for most enthusiastic chef. She literally squealed with delight on the phone when Leah called to ask if she would join us on the farm. Ever since then, she’s been excitedly planning a signature OITF event: food, farmers, wine, beer, music- all of the ingredients for a memorable dinner. She even went so far as to close the restaurant that Sunday evening and have almost her entire staff there in the orchard.

Thanks to Mindy and her savories chef Mark, we were blessed with perhaps the largest number of farmers and producers that have shared the table this season. This was reflected in the menu: beer from Three Floyds Brewing Co.; pork and duck from Gunthorp Farm; grits from Plapp Farm; raspberries from Sow Little Farm; musk melon from Seedling Farm; tomatoes, beans and apples from Nichols Farm; wine from Black Star Farm; and spirits from Death’s Door.

Mindy climbed an orchard ladder as the dinner came to a close, thanking her crew and Outstanding for the opportunity to make dinner on the farm.

After cleanup and staff meal, knowing we had a day of rest before the Chicago, Leah decided “a night out” on the farm would be fun and stayed up late happily celebrating with the remaining kitchen and service staff, even bringing a few of them on board the bus very very late that night when they didn’t have any other place to stay.

A Day Off!

After laundry, final clean up and a relaxed two hour drive we arrived in Chicago. First stop: Hot Doug’s, which Anna Lena, our German intern, was very eager to visit. She kept telling Jim in her strong German accent that she really wanted to go to “Hot Ducks”. After much confusion, Jim figured out she was actually saying Hot Doug’s: a famed ‘encased meats’ joint.

What a place! A line out the door and down the street for Chicago’s finest. Pretty good stuff. Ben was probably the most adventurous in his choice of “dog”: pheasant bacon sausage with foie gras and whole grain mustard. A once in a lifetime opportunity for a Californian.

Also a fine final American dining experience for Anna Lena Banzhof, as she was soon whisked off to the airport to return to university culinary studies in Italy.

Just in case Hot Doug’s didn’t satisfy our Chicago cravings, that night we decided to visit Gino’s East for deep dish Chicago style pizza. Though Gino’s was “interesting”, it didn’t quite reach the culinary heights of Hot Doug’s. Probably no more Chicago deep dish pizza for us.

City Farm and Chef Paul Virant

Last August Paul Virant joined us for a memorable dinner event at Kinnikinnick Farm. This season, Paul was excited about setting the OITF table with one of his very local suppliers. City Farm is a tremendous effort by farmer Tim Wilson to reclaim and rehabilitate abandoned spaces in the city of Chicago. Productive green fields of vegetables are surrounded on all sides by the bustle of the city. We pulled up to City Farm with plenty of time to decide where the table should go, but we didn’t need much time as there was only one place it could possibly fit! Seventeen 8 foot tables soon became a curving single table.

Paul and crew greeted good friends and city farmers Tim and Aaron and got down to work. We couldn’t hide the table as we usually do, so guests immediately placed their plate down at the table as they arrived. A beautiful sight.

The group of guests was shown a tour of the farm which we thought would be somewhat short since the farm is literally the length of our long table. However, the City Farmers proved us wrong with much to share about their land and story.

For dinner it was Paul’s suckling pig that stole the show, though every course was delicious with City Farm ingredients included throughout: turnips, greens, tomatoes, beans, herbs and other goodies.

With the darkness of the night came the glow of city lights. The noise of the traffic subsided as the dinner conversation grew animated and filled our little farm.

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