22 August 2010

Feasting with Farmers at StarGrazer Cafe

A cornucopia of freshly-harvested produce from the organic farms at Prairie Crossing (photo: Jim Javenkoski)
On August 20th, StarGrazer Cafe (Grayslake, IL) hosted its first-ever Locavore Dinner, which is the second in a new series of events I'm curating to enhance consumers' appreciation for locally-grown food, their knowledge of local food systems and their overall food literacy. The dinner attracted 28 guests, including the farm families from Sandhill Organics, Dea Dia Organics and Wild Goose Farm, all of whom grow food crops (and raise chickens and pigs, in the case of Dea Dia Organics) on the fertile soil of Prairie Crossing, a conservation community of 359 homes located in Lake County about 35 miles north-northwest of downtown Chicago. StarGrazer Cafe, owned and operated by chef Tim Kuck, is a sustainability-focused restaurant which opened in October 2009.

While planning the event, Tim and I agreed that the menu should maximize the number of ingredients sourced from the on-site farms, all which are located about a mile from the restaurant. The proximity of farms and forks enabled us to offer a hyper-locavore dinner in terms of distance and food freshness. The vegetables, fruits and herbs were harvested within 24 hours of the meal and delivered directly to Tim, ensuring they retained all of their nutrients and sensory qualities prior to preparation. Additionally, each course was paired with craft beers from Mickey Finn's Brewery in Libertyville, located just 4 miles from StarGrazer Cafe. Brewmaster Greg Browne joined us for the meal and offered insights about the ingredients and methods he uses to brew his beers, which were enthusiastically poured from growlers at each table during the meal.

Following my brief welcome to the guests, our dinner began with a family-style platter of three crostini featuring sweet and sour honey goat cheese, peach and scallion shredded pork and cucumber and heirloom tomato. The honey was sourced from the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm and the goat cheese was hand-made at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery (Champaign, IL). The scallions and pork were produced on-site by Dea Dia Organics and the cucumber and heirloom tomatoes were grown by Sandhill Organics. We paired the crostini with Gudenteit Hefeweiss (5.2% ABV, 12 IBU), a refreshingly effervescent wheat ale with subtle banana/clove notes.

The second course was a delicious gazpacho made from a selection of roasted summer vegetables. The tomatoes were grown on-site by Sandhill Organics, the zucchini and yellow squash were sourced from Natural Farm Stand (Richmond, IL) and the onions and herbs were grown on-site by Dea Dia Organics. We paired the gazpacho with Hopgarden Helles (5.5% ABV, 15 IBU), a robust lager with an appealing aroma of roasted malt and yeasty bread dough.

Prior to serving the highly-anticipated entrees, StarGrazer Cafe's staff presented two salad courses, both of which included seasonal fruit. The blueberry/blue cheese/beets salad featured blueberries grown on-site at the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm and a combination of red, orange and heirloom beets grown on-site by Sandhill Organics. On a hunch, Chef Tim smoked the beets over apple and cherry wood for 12 hours and the results were indescribably delicious! This successful culinary experiment has ensured that smoked beets will become a seasonal staple on StarGrazer Cafe's menu. The grilled peach and mozzarella salad was equally delightful and a perfect companion for the beer pairing. Katarina Wit (5.7% ABV, 18 IBU) is a Belgian-inspired white ale brewed with coriander, orange peel and lemon peel (and a liquid homage to the famous German figure skater). The peaches were grown in Michigan and purchased from Natural Farm Stand.

When the entrees were served, all of the guests had been happily chatting and chowing for about 45 minutes. Just by chance, each of the three communal tables for the dinner included one of the farm families from Prairie Crossing, offering all of the guests a unique opportunity to share a meal with the people who provided the food. The first entree was blueberry-rum marinated pork shoulder, prepared with blueberries from the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm and pork raised on-site by Dea Dia Organics. The companion entree was grass-fed beef tenderloin with vanilla wine sauce, featuring beef from none other than Dietzler Farms (Elkhorn, WI) and vanilla extract from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas (Waukegan, IL). Both entrees were accompanied by succotash (Swiss chard, kale, corn and torpedo onions) and roasted Peruvian blue and huckleberry (pink) potatoes, the latter of which is an heirloom variety. We paired the entrees with Dog Days Summer Ale (4.2% ABV, 25 IBU), a pale and hoppy brew with subtle floral and citrus undertones that slightly amplified the fruit and vanilla notes of the pork and beef preparations, respectively.

The final course of our feast was an almond waffle topped with peach-pecan ice cream. The dual textures and temperature contrast between the ingredients made this a scrumptious conclusion to a deliciously satisfying meal. The characteristic malty flavor of the waffle was enhanced by Legspinner Barley Wine (9% ABV, 35 IBU), a strong ale with a robustly malty and slightly fruity flavor profile.

While the guests enjoyed the afterglow of marvelous meal, I offered a few closing comments about how each of us can actively participate in our local food system by allocating more of our food dollars to direct purchases from farmers, via farmers' markets or through CSA subscriptions. In the current economic climate, all of us can contribute to a local stimulus by putting cash into the hands of our farmers. Buying locally-grown foods produces a positive, residual effect as those food dollars multiply while circulating through the community. An additional benefit of purchasing food from farmers is re-establishing a clear line-of-sight to the origin of our food. So, the goal of the Locavore Dinners extends well-beyond short-term sustenance and food-inspired conversation among the guests. My hope is that these events will focus our attention on the positive economic, environmental, social and food safety impacts we can make in our foodshed through locavorism.

I'm grateful to the farmers who grew and harvested the food for this meal and then joined us for the feast: Matt and Peg Sheaffer (Sandhill Organics), Jeff and Jen Miller (Dea Dia Organics) and Meg Runyan (Wild Goose Farm). I appreciate Kris Schroeder's effort to shoot and post several photos from the dinner. Thanks to Greg Browne for sharing his brews and wisdom with all of us. Special acknowledgment to Dr. Michael Sands (Executive Director of the Liberty Prairie Foundation), who commissioned this event and was very supportive during the planning process, as was Ben Ranney (Principal of Terra Firma Co.), who appeared to enjoy every moment and every morsel of the meal.

The dinner was filmed by Big Teeth Productions (headquartered in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood), which will release a documentary video of the event in mid-September (follow this blog for details).

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