At the farm, a chefs perspective—

Jun 1st, 2008

Undoubtedly by now people who know me, have heard me say that purchasing from the local farms whenever possible is the best start to a good meal. From my roots in Cleveland’s Friday market and throughout my career I gravitated to the citys farmers markets, docks, dairies and culinary artisans for my ingredients. So it stands to reason that when CB decided to create its own farmers market I wanted to be involved. My roles have been to source out a variety of products from vendors in our own food shed of Oregon and Washington, and invite them to participate. In the process, I became increasingly in touch how these personal connections with food producers of my ingredients are central to my cooking.

I am pretty sure most chefs feel the same and yet with the distance from the valley to the coast, there is little opportunity here to buy directly from the source. Instead efforts often dead-end with the reality that little volumes don’t warrant the farmers cost to drive it here. That is why the market committee approached the farmers with what we hoped would make their participation more attractive to them. After lots of phone calls to the farms and considerable dialog with our local restaurants and businesses we were encouraged that our model could work. Chefs were very interested in the opportunity to buy directly from a weekly source for the summer. And the farmers and producers were definitely intrigued with the prospect of increasing their sales. The market committee held an initial “meet and greet” event where chefs and producers got together and the collaboration started. The market vendors are set to deliver business owner’s orders before the market starts every Tuesday, with plenty of product for the general sales to the public from 2-6. During the process, we learned that farmers sometimes shy away from new markets altogether, until the market is a year or two old. We think the collaborative helped us put together a nice diverse group for the first market.

You might think that is all there is to it, but we are following the Oregon state advisory on putting together a successful farmers market that suggests some type of quality assurance be in place. A farm or site visit is recommended to ensure that what is brought to market is actually produced at the source by the applicant. Aside from getting business licenses and vendor certifications, we set out to meet our vendors where they work.

A site visit to a farm, ranch or artisan producer not only tells me allot about the products and producers, but it also helps me unite and connect the circle with what I do. I am not sure if people actually think much about where food comes from. In fact as a city dweller all my life, I have been guilty of not giving it a second thought myself. This opportunity makes me hope I never forget the “who, when, and where” of my ingredients.

In every case, the story behind the food product and its cycle of growth to harvest brought out in me some of the passion I saw in the producers. In some way I imagine it must have been the way my grandmother purchased ingredients in her Italian village. To know the actual person(s), who grew the potatoes or whatever, makes my task to prepare them a bit more real. At the risk of romanticizing something that is truly hard work, I must say that Lenore and I came away from farm visits wishing we had just a little more land to raise a chicken, pig, cow or two. The farmers and producers welcomed us with open hospitality. We saw and felt their heart-warming pride in their contributions to this life.

One rancher that I have to mention is Lance Waldron and his wife Tammi Lesh of Lance Farm Vittles. Theirs is a third-generation family farm on the north coast of Oregon not far from here. Lance’s grandfather bought the farm in the 40’s with milking and beef cows only. Lance grew up there and by the time he was in high school they had added pigs and started selling to neighbors. Four years ago they added a small flock of Icelandic sheep to the mix, and about then they decided to sell frozen beef, lamb and pork at local farmers markets. Lance told me they had such great community support that pretty soon they added whole fryers to their product list.

I was most impressed with the quality of the pasture-raised beef and sheep because they are raised on a diet of grass and hay, and never any grain. After three weeks in a homemade brooder, the chicks on this farm move to a “predator proof” and moveable pen out in a grassy field behind the farmhouse. The pen is moved at least once a day so chicks have fresh grass, bugs, worms, etc. all the while they give back good quality nitrogen into the grass. They are also fed a natural vegetable protein based poultry food from the local feed store that augments the grass. Water is available like drip irrigation from a big bucket on top of the pen.

The pigs there also receive a natural vegetable protein based diet of barley vegetable compost along with fresh grass during summer. When we were there, they were fed the leftover milk from the dairy cows, called colostrum’s, which is the first milk after a cow has a calf. Apparently after a cow births, her milk has a strong flavor and fat molecules so large it mucks up the equipment at the dairy. Since this first milk, five to ten milkings worth, isn’t popular with humans either, after the calves get their share, the rest goes to the pigs! We watched in amazement while they poured several gallons of this sweet creamy liquid into the pig troughs. The pigs rejoiced and the smell for me was intoxicatingly rich, creamy and sweet, the way fresh milk should smell.
What a treat for us to see this well-run family ranch-farm and get to know the working-owners. For me, the phrase that kept going through my mind is one that I picked up at that software company I used to work with, you know, “garbage in, garbage out.” The feed on this ranch was anything but garbage, and for sure the resulting food products promise to be top of the line. I kept imagining working with the pinkish white fine-grained pork meat from those cream fed pigs.
These are just a few of the valuable outcomes for me after these visits. The farm and my stove are connected in a way that my appreciation for food ingredients I use takes me to a higher level of conscience. I no longer clean my walk-in refrigerator and dump spoiled food without truly feeling it. I know spoiled food happens, but now that I genuinely appreciate my ingredients. You might say I cook with more conscience now. It literally hurts when a bag of parsley or a piece of cheese goes bad due to my neglect or oversight. I have watched Lenore pat the noses of the Jersey cows in the pasture, and yet I do not imagine them a cute pet, but rather the proud example of their breed that are being raised sustainably for market. So for me, a food source with such conscience is just a required segment of the circle that continues in my kitchen.
My recipe today is one that utilizes our very first crop from our little backyard pea patch. We call it our ode to the New Radish Slaw, made with the radishes you either just picked yourself or ones you purchase from CB Tuesday market. Enjoy.

ODE TO THE NEW RADISH SLAW
2 bunches fresh radish, julienne or cut into matchstick pieces
1 handful micro radish greens* (optional)
1 bunch baby carrots with tops, julienne 1 handful new cilantro leaves only, chopped
1 skinny bunch chives, minced
2 TBS sherry vinegar
4 TBS EVOO
TT sea salt, ground coriander, ground pepper
1-2 tsp sugar, to taste, optional Method: Clean garden fresh radishes under cool running water to remove all the dirt; cut off the green tops. (Note we don’t even bother to take off the root once they are well cleaned as these roots are still so tender and sweet).
Do the same with the baby carrots, removing tops; clean well so no need to peel. Add radish micro greens (if available), cilantro, and chive; toss with sherry vinegar, followed by EVOO and seasonings. Taste and adjust with a tiny bit of sugar if it needs it. Serve immediately or chill for service.

*If you plant radishes from seed a couple weeks apart you will also have plenty of micro radish greens to add to the salad That would be just the sprouts of the when they are about 2 inches high.