An interesting way to run a CSA

I like the idea of community-supported-agriculture programs. The idea is that consumers pay farmers up front in exchange for a cut of the farmer’s harvest. It’s supposed to reduce the risk local producers face by spreading it out among customers. Perfect growing weather? Eaters share in the plenty and abundance. Crappy growing season and deer infestation? There’s a lot less to go around.

Part of the fun is that it’s a way to be forced to figure out what to do with food I wouldn’t usually buy. Like two years ago I swear we got nothing but kohlrabi all summer. And that fucking kohlrabi — a vegetable that even the deer didn’t want — was the beginning and ending of my CSA participation.

But I’m going to try it again this year and here’s why:
Salt Fork Farms has set up their CSA program differently. It requires an initial $200 buy-in, but instead of being loaded up with weird vegetables that I have no interest in cooking all summer long (or canning for the winter), I have the privilege of shopping at their farmers’ market stand with my $200-worth of punch cards (with a 10 percent discount). I can get a gazillion eggs and a few chickens. Or only greens in the spring. Or whatever else they’ve got.

I’m just happy that I won’t be forced to deal with kohlrabi again.

Matt Steigerwald goes to Des Moines, wins Cochon 555. Again.

Cochon 555, a US tour that pairs five pigs with five cooks and pits the cooks against each other in a “friendly competition,” was in Des Moines again. Lincoln Cafe’s Matt Steigerwald (with a lot of help from his right-hand man Andy Schumacher) delivered a wonderful assortment of dishes and won again.

The competition, with a pair of chefs up from Kansas City and George Formaro of Django and Centro, was higher this year and, over all, the food was better. Deciding for whom to vote was a real struggle; a point separated my top three.

It’s interesting to see what themes get repeated. Last year, three of the five cooks served pulled pork and cole slaw on a buscuit. None of that this year, but we did get three pozole soups.

Favorites were Hal Jasa of Homage’s fried-pig-ear and quail-egg salad and his corned tongue. Cody Hogan of Lidia’s in Kansas City made my single favorite dish with a lovely pork ravioli. Steigerwald offered a great variety, but tops might have been the head cheese. Formaro went straight Mexican and the chorizo taco was lovely. And Howard Hanna of the River Club in Kansas City offered a passionately produced menu (including the only straight vegetables of the evening), but the best was his “Cuban.” By the time all was said and done, there was no way I could eat a single goddamn pork-based dessert.

Anyway, there was a lot of pork and wine and I had a great time. Seriously, you should make plans to attend next year. But it was also a crazy drive home in the driving rain and now I need sleep.

Come feast on some pork

Last year I had a great time gorging on pork and helping judge Cochon 555 in Des Moines. I’m excited that Brady Lowe asked me to do it again this year. You should come along. From the release:

A group of chefs will each prepare a 140-pound heritage breed hog from head to toe for this friendly competition. Guests and professional judges will determine a winner based on presentation, utilization and overall best flavor. The winner will be crowned the “Prince/Princess of Porc.” In addition, five selected winemakers will showcase their wines. Cochon555 is a tribute to heritage and heirloom breeds, chefs and winemakers.

Some great cooks, including Matt Steigerwald of Lincoln Cafe, George Formaro of Centro and Django, and Hal Jasa of homage, will be preparing pigs.

Anyway, it’s at the Hotel Fort Des Moines on Saturday, April 24, starting at 3:30 p.m if you’re interested in paying for the VIP pre-feast schmooze, the pig gets served up at 5. You can buy tickets online (get in touch if you’re interested in a discount code) or visit for more information.

Taste on Melrose closes

Last night, we ate at Taste on Melrose for the umpteenth time. Tonight it closed for the final time.

I didn’t know Christian, the owner and chef, particularly well, but we were friendly enough to greet each other in public (and I can’t say that about many people). But he clearly wasn’t happy about it closing. When I asked him what he was planning to do next he said, I think only half joking, “rob banks.”

Even if the 90-percent first-year failure rate is a myth, the restaurant industry is brutal. Taste lasted eight years. I don’t know what killed it. But speculation — completely unsubstantiated speculation — was that rules preventing drug company reps from wining and dining doctors from the nearby university hospital made a huge dent in the restaurant’s business. It couldn’t have helped the there were likely fewer recruitment dinners as budgets there were slashed, too.

Taste is where my wife and I ate dinner the day we were married; just the two of us after a simple morning wedding in a magistrate’s office. The magistrate’s office was destroyed in an F5 tornado in 2006. And now with the closing of Taste, we’re left with Village Inn, the family restaurant where one of our witnesses took us to breakfast, as the last physical reminders of our wedding day.

And that makes me as sad as another good restaurant closing.

Photo by Taste on Melrose on Flickr.

Pork and beer (oh, dear)

The Johnson County Local Food Alliance is throwing a pork and beer party and they’ve invited me! (And you.) This Wednesday, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Atlas, I’ll be talking about that time I met a pig and killed it.

JCLFA’s Paul Sorenson tells me that James Adrian, the chef at Atlas, will “prepare at least a whole hog for the festivities” and Liz Weinberg, also with the JCLFA, said she’ll have some charcuterie to eat. And then there’s the cash bar.

It’s a good cause (they’re asking for a $10 donation), and I’d love to meet you, so please come by. I’m really a perfectly nice person, despite my bloodthirstiness.

Small plates: Share and Zins

Yesterday, I heard on the radio an Australian who was in town for the International Writers Workshop say, when the discussion turned to food, that she was surprised that portions were “the size of small buildings.”

Yes, that’s how we eat here in the Midwest America.

But in the last couple of weeks I’ve eaten at a two restaurants focusing on so-called “small plates” — dishes that only offer a half-dozen bites or so.

First was Share, a month-old place in the renovated Sheraton in downtown Iowa City. The other day was lunch at the reopened Zins in downtown Cedar Rapids. I wish there were more restaurants like them.

Share goes for hip and laid back. Small wine list but offers bottles, glasses and demi glasses (basically a smaller, cheaper pour). Food is decent, and prices are reasonable. It hasn’t had its grand opening yet, so there weren’t a lot of people there when I reviewed the place for Corridor Buzz (under a stunningly dull headline) which was nice.

Zins goes for a little more elegance: white tablecloths and nice china. It reopened exactly one year after it closed from the flooding of Cedar Rapids. (They’ve done a nice, subtle job of memorializing the flood with a blue line and date at the water’s high point in the entry way, and a framed mud-stained tablecloth with batik-like white showing through where glasses, plates and silverware had been.)

Lunch at Zins is a steal (two plates and a drink for $8), and dessert is decent (I tried “bacon & eggs,” which they describe as “vanilla panna cotta with peach puree, chocolate covered bacon with smoked sea salt, espresso caramel sauce” and sounds more interesting than it was).

Oddly, I more comfortable sharing small plates than I am entrees, though entrees could probably benefit more from the treatment since plodding through an entree is pretty boring after a few bites.

That’s why I found it odd when our waitress at Zins seemed surprised that we would order small plates and then, you know, share.

On holiday: the “Garden State” is so appropriate for New Jersey, but not in a good way

I’ve been in southern New Jersey since Saturday, but even before then I was debating the merits of the state’s claim to the “Garden State” moniker. By which I mean I was disagreeing with an aunt, via Twitter, about how Jersey corn compares to Iowa corn (sweet corn, not the stuff we produce for animals and ethanol).

I didn’t even need to try this year’s vintage of Jersey corn, I said, to know it was inferior to Iowa sweet corn, even in an admittedly down year for Iowa sweet corn.

But now that I’m here again, I understand why calling New Jersey the “Garden State” is completely appropriate. Let me explain.

When I have had a garden in years past, the idea has always been grand: a plethora of fresh, amazing produce that can be fantastic eating and then bounty enough to be canned for fall and winter. This is the dream that is also “Jersey fresh.”

Reality is much different: beetles, rabbits and squirrels render inedible whatever meager fruit appears  on our plants. Some never ripens, others cross pollinates to produce some freakish hybrid, and it’s never in a good way. Always extreme disappointment.

And so it has been with New Jersey produce: nice idea, poor execution. I’ve had some hard “Jersey fresh” tomatoes and starchy “Jersey fresh” corn that isn’t even in the same league as Midwestern fare. (The wife reports that the peaches have been good. The blueberries aren’t bad, either.) But this isn’t the Heartland. It’s just the Garden State.

At least they have scrapple. And cheese steaks.

The affectionate slapping of ingredients

In Michael Pollan’s recent Times piece on how we Americans have stopped cooking for ourselves and now just watch people cook on TV, he mentions Julia Child, the cooking-show pioneer. It was one line in particular that caught my attention: his mention of Child’s “deep sensual delight” in the “fondling and affectionate slapping of ingredients in their raw state.”

I have affectionately slapped ingredients and witnessed other cooks doing the same on many occasions, though almost always meat. (I apologize in advance for what, at least to my immature mind, are unavoidable, snicker-inducing descriptions of meat rubbing.)

When I was turning a pork belly into bacon, I spent an inordinate amount to time flipping and massaging the 12-pound hunk of pork.

When I hung out with the Lincoln Café crew as they broke down whole pig, I noticed both Matt Steigerwald and Andy Schumacher rub the pig lovingly and absentmindedly.

And there was the serrano ham hanging in a Barcelona market that I felt compelled to smack, leaving a stench that was nearly impossible to wash off my hand. (I assume because of the hindquarter’s age or cheapness or both.)

What is it about ingredient slapping that is so pleasurable?

Perhaps it’s because cooking and food are, by their natures, sensual experiences, even though there is clear science to it. Cooking well means recognizing fine differences. A good sense of touch can be difference between perfect and overcooked steak. Or under-kneaded and perfect dough. Or a perfect or broken emulsion.

Touching seems, at least to me, one way a cook reinforce the art in the science that is cooking.

Not exactly soup from a stone, but along those lines

We were going to have pasta for dinner, use up some leftovers: an open jar of pasta sauce and some shitake mushrooms mostly. But we stopped by the store on the way home to get some bread to fill the meal out. Then we got some cheese. And some pesto. And olives.

By the time all was said and done, we scrapped the pasta.

An additional note: I’ve decided that unlike my friend Emily, whose photos taken at home always have attractive, clean and hip-looking things in the background, I just don’t live that way. Hence this morning’s coffee mugs and the laptop and various papers in my photos. Luckily I was able to crop out most of the crap on our dinning table.

A Six Pack Of Beer For Summer

When I asked for the summer beer recommendations, one friend simply suggested “a lot.” Yes, very clever. Here are six beers particularly good for summer.

Anchor Steam Beer, Anchor Brewery
When I worked at the New Pioneer Co-op as a bagger and cashier so many years ago, I was intrigued by this bottle. This was before the huge rise in microbrews (which then grew so popular that they were bought by major brewers and the brews became not-so-micro), so there was novelty to a beer you couldn’t buy at a gas station.

Steam-style is the only beer style native to America, invented, at least the story goes, by European immigrants living on the West Coast (it uses a lager yeast yet doesn’t ferment under refrigeration the way a lager does). Anchor is the only brewery that produces it commercially, mostly because they own the trademark.

Oberon, Bell’s Brewery
Last summer, when I was working for The Tampa Tribune, I covered a craft beer expo. It was a popular event to cover; Jeff Houck, the paper’s food writer, and Rommie Johnson, editor of the paper’s Friday Extra entertainment section, had press credentials, too. And cover might be the wrong word since it ended up getting about a single paragraph in the paper.

So while it might just have been an excuse for the three of us to drink on the job, we did get some great beer out of it, including Oberon, from Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery. I did spend much of my afternoon elbowing drunk Floridians wearing “beer wenches want me” T-shirts out of the way to get more of this this fruity and well-hopped wheat ale out of the freebie Samuel Adams glasses. Still, it couldn’t make up for the number of times I overheard someone say they were “just here for the beer.”

Odd that I had to go to Florida to try this Midwestern brew.

Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA
Dogfish offers three different IPAs, short for India Pale Ale because it was traditionally produced to last the long ship voyage from Britian to India and so needed to be heavily hopped. Each version is named for the length it is boiled when still raw wort (the state before it is fermented). The 60-minute version is the least alcoholic (since less water is boiled off than the 90-minute and 120-minute brews).

Boulevard Ales Smokestack Series Saison
I like all four of Boulevard’s Smokestack Series ales but because of Iowa’s arcane alcohol laws, which treat high-alcohol beers like hard liquor despite having alcohol content similar to wine, makes them harder to find.

The brewery’s Saison is light and wheat-y and therefor the most summer-y. But really, if you find a place that has all four you should buy one of each.

ESB, Red Hook
Readily available, reasonably priced and reliably decent, Red Hook’s ESB (which the brewery used to label “Extra Special Bitter” until it learned was a turn off to mass-market beer consumers) is as good a stand-by as any.

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Everyone — even beer snobs — have a favorite cheap beer. PBR is the beer of my childhood. OK, teenage years.

It was the beer of choice for us hard-core punk-rock kids. (One night, drinking under a train bridge, I impressed my future sister-in-law with my ability to vomit and then return to drinking. Classy.) So it’s nostalgic for me.

What else do you like for summer?