Friday, April 04, 2008

What's In Season Now - Ramps!

Guest Blogger David the Hat Hammond Blogs the Rampfest

About the first thing to arrive in the ground around these parts are ramps, and man about town, David Hammond happened to be there as they sprouted. He contributed a report to WBEZ's 848 on the annual Rampfest at Spence Farm, and he also agreed to write a post for the blog.

Rummaging for Ramps

Ramps are funny vegetables. They’re the first tender premonitions of springtime, delicate, yet resistant to being torn from the still cool earth. As Marty Travis of Spence Farm explained, “You have to get under them,” with a shovel or spade, and work them up gently, or they break and you’re left with a fistful of greens.

Travis is one of the coolest guys I’ve met in a long time. Supplier to Frontera/Topolobampo, Vie and many other higher-end Chicagoland restaurants, Marty is an unassuming man who speaks with simplicity and gentleness that reflects the rolling land of a farm that’s been in his family since 1830.

Every year for the past few, Travis has worked with Terra Brockman of the Land Connection to host a ramp dig, which is now a major attraction among chefs who come to get their hands dirty ripping up ramps and reconnecting with the source of the food they serve their patrons.

After a few hours of ramping, there’s a farm lunch that’s about as wonderful as one could imagine. Some of the area’s most adventurous chefs bring in favorite dishes in an unspoken, gentlemanly competition to shine in a room of some of the brightest culinary minds. From Frontera, there was incredibly tender and subtly piquant roast pork with fresh tortillas; from Vie, full flavored pate, brilliantly crisp housemade pickles and goat butter pound cake. There were many other miraculous contributions, but perhaps the most memorable sensation was the feeling that these chefs were coming together to make great food but also to rediscover and reconnect with the source of that food.

Like I said, ramps are funny. Fresh from the ground, they are almost unpleasantly strong tasting, a kind of vibrant hybrid of garlic and onion, aggressively green. Cut into, say, an egg salad and kept a day, they lose their anger at being ripped out of the earth so young, and gain a subtle tang that makes them a special and pleasing, though transient, taste of spring.

Some pix from the dig, courtesy of the Hat:

Paul and Janet Virant, ramping

Dean Zanella of 312 Chicago, along with a coterie of other ramp-loving chefs, cleaning the leek-like shoots

Goat butter pound cake

Goat, done birria-style

What's in Season - April

On Your Own

The newest list of seasonal and available local products is below. April's a mixed blessing for the local food lover. It is the first month that this list grew (compare to last month or the month before). On the other hand, the outlets for local food are somewhat sparse right now. Aside from the Geneva local superstore, there's no area farmers markets (that I know of) this month.

Last week, Cassie had Wisconsin potatoes; Irv and Shelly have the ever present sprouts and a few other items, but outlets for local foods are not ample this month. Lucky folks like me have Spring CSA subscriptions. Farmer Vicki made the first delivery of her Spring CSA yesterday. Farmer Vicki, at least, however, has limited space for her Spring CSA. The best place for locavores* this month, for sure, will be a few hours northwest of Chicago, the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wisconsin, which goes outdoors on April 19. I'll be there.

Beef, lamb, chicken, pork
farm raised tilapia and trout
commercial Great Lakes fish - pike, whitefish, perch, white bass, carp
Field crops
Greenhouse crops

chard and other greens
sprouts and microgreens

Storage crops
carrots (also greenhouse)
Wild and weeds

*I was using the spelling "localvore" in respect for Drake's site, but since he's gone long dormat (hopefully he'll be up again) I'm going to the more common spelling.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Use Local Dairy

Yogurt, Ice Cream

Earlier this week, I blogged about all the good local milk that goes into local cheese. There's other ways to use our local milk.

I find three ways to make great yogurt. First, drain the stuff. You get a thick spread with a nice mouth feel. Second, use whole milk. In fact, the great yogurt in Greektown is the result of both of these steps. The third way is to use pasture-fed, organic, high quality local milk. There's at least three places around us doing that. There's Sugar River Dairy from Wisconsin, Whispering Meadows Farm from Illinois and Traders Point Creamery from Indiana. The first two are somewhat hard to find around Chicago markets (now), but my sources tell me Sugar River yogurt might be showing up at some markets, including farmers markets soon. Traders Point Creamery yogurt can be found at most Whole Foods and also Fox & Obel.

While Traders Point Creamery yogurt can be found at a lot of places, I do not know many places to find their ice cream. Luckily, it's just another good excuse to visit Cassie's Green Grocer. Her freezer case contains the vanilla ice cream from Traders Creamery, and when I say ice cream, I mean cream. This is an ideal variation on the theme of cream, one in its more solid state.

Discover how our local farmers are putting their milk to good use.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Farmer Blog

Harmony Valley

The farmers at Harmony Valley Farm in Wisconsin have taken to the blogisphere. Some interesting stuff on how organic, year-round farming works. Harmony Valley products, especially their ramps, can sometimes be found in Chicago area Whole Foods. You can also stop by their stand at the Dane County Farmer's Market.

What's Local, Whole Foods, Maxwell Street

20 Varieties of Sprouts, Some Mushrooms

Whole Foods and the rest of the businesses with their complex near Roosevelt and Canal succeeded in moving the Sunday Maxwell Street Market a block away from them. So, if their plan was to keep the Maxwell Street shoppers out, they failed. I stopped in at that Whole Foods last Sunday. With my Maxwell Street bags.

I espied the chalkboard. 26 local items this day it said. My family and I played local hide and seek. Could we really find all 26. It took a few minutes to find something, beets from Wisconsin. We looked more. We asked. We looked. 25 to go? We asked. Someone put the number up, but no one could account for it. We checked for apples. This winter we did once find Michigan apples at a Whole Foods. We looked for potatoes. We have seen organic potatoes from Igl Farm of Wisconsin before. Onions. No. Finally, we made it to the sprouts. Most of the sprouts came from area greenhouses. Maybe if we counted. Then, again, there was at least one pack of Wisconsin mushrooms. 26?

Monday, March 31, 2008

Eat Local Cheese


Here's Jeanne Carpenter's, of Cheese Underground, list of favorite Wisconsin cheeses. Not a bad list, not a bad list...

Eat Local Cheese

NYTimes Highlights Wisconsin Cheesemakers

I bought the NYTimes yesterday, partly for the Spring Travel Mag; then I noticed that part gone when I sat down to read. I found it soaked, this morning, in the backyard. I must have dropped it. Luckily, Daisy on the Mouthfuls site tipped me off to the great spread on Wisconsin cheesemakers in the magazine that I could find online.

The piece gets it pretty darn right. Profiling (briefly) the really famous, Uplands; the almost as famous, Carr Valley; the one known to those in the know, Bleu Mont Dairy; the one who's almost just as known for not being able to have her cheese, Fantome Farm, and the one who's working hard to be known, Hidden Springs Creamery.

It's certainly a who's who of my favorite cheeses, with Bleu Mont's bandaged cheddar and Hidden Springs spreadable sheep milk being about the two best cheeses in the bungalow right now--being given some competition from some Hook's 10 year old cheddar I found hidden in our basement fridge.

Vie, The Menu

No Pork Sausage for You

A day after our Vie meal, Chef Paul Virant created (and posted) a new menu. Unfortunately, it appears you won't be able to try his house made pork sausage. My guess is that he ran out. My further guess is that this menu will soon be ramp-redundant. If you want your baby artichokes, now's the time to hit Vie.

Yesterday's Must Read

3 New Farmer's Markets

Actually this was Saturday's Must Read but I'm just getting 'round to catching up on a lot of things to blog. My friend Monica Eng reports on the good news of three more farmers markets opening, and the especially good news that they will be serving "food deserts", areas generally lacking in fresh food options. The good news is somewhat tapped down by the reporting
Farmers markets sponsored by the city have strict rules that allow only those who grow the food to sell it and prohibit the sale of prepared foods. The new hybrid market in Bronzeville will allow cooked foods, antiques vendors, music, re-sold produce and other items prohibited at regular markets.
As I have become friends with Robin, who did such a fantastic job organizing this season's winter markets (which ended with a bang yesterday), I've learned that there's some tension between antiques, crafts and the what-not and farmers at markets. Essentially farmers don't seem to like the artsy types. Me, I not much for that kinda stuff either, although my wife can spend as much money as I do on food as on home-made earrings, but I think any thing that drives traffic to a farmers market is a good thing. I, obviously, have problems with the re-sold produce.
The rationale for the third party produce is that the neighborhood has such limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the first place."We wanted the opportunity to have some resale of things like citrus and bananas," [market manager] Johnson-Gabriel said.
Me, I think that's a recipe for trouble, a vicious circle in the making. Too many market visitors will get tempted by the lower prices of the re-sold produce. Local farmers will give up on the market. I mean during the farmers market season do people need access to citrus and bananas? I would be more sympathetic to that argument if the market ran year round. I also know I'm being overly cynical and perhaps a bit, no it's really not racist because I see all kinds of people sticking to the least local food at the Oak Park Farmer's Market, but what, classist, I do not know, but I certainly don't trust people to make the local choice (always) on their own. I'm an eat local Trotskyite.

Today's Must Read

Factory Farmed

From today's CTrib, a California dairyman looks to bring Cali-style milk farming to the Midwest. The words that give away the game:
Much of the feed for the cows he milks on his dad's land comes from the Midwest, and a good portion of the milk is shipped back to the Midwest. Bos said it doesn't take a business genius to figure out how to increase profits. "It's more expensive getting feed to California and hauling the milk back," he said. "It's more efficient to put the cows where the feed is."
Me, I prefer my milk from cow's that eat grass, on pasture.

Factory dairymen taut the economic benefits they bring, transforming a sagging part of the agricultural economy in Illinois.
He estimated the farm would create 40 jobs, paying about $10 per hour.

Now, I'm not against business and commerce and success. Farmers should be able to make money and best use their land (cf what's wrong with the current farm subsidies), but there's also good farming and bad farming. This is bad farming. Bad animal husbandry (I know I've toured a factory milk operation in Arizona), bad tasting milk (cows need grass), tremendous enviromental risks (google Smithfield). For forty jobs. Instead, try producing good milk that can demand a premium at the market, local milk.

Eat local encapsulates a lot of things for my family and me. We use local milk--I would say drink, but 95% of our milk purchases goes into morning coffee, so it's more like a condiment than a beverage--as part of our greater commitment to local. Local means supporting good farmers. Local means supporting sustainable agriculture. Local means finding products that tastes great. You can have it all. Here in the Chicago area we can chose from such dairy as Crystal Ball Farms or Oak Grove Organics or the most accessible, Farmer's All Natural Creamery from Kalona, Iowa. (Compare your milk here.) Be willing to pay the small premium for this kind of milk. It's worth it.