Monday, September 26, 2011

Feast from the Fields 2011

What an amazing night. Last weekend I cooked for a fund raising dinner for 250 people at an urban charter high school with an organic farm. Most of the ingredients traveled only a few feet to arrive in the kitchen including the pig, the chicken, and nearly all of the vegetables. The honey, peaches and cheese were from other nearby farms, and only the oil, butter, flour, sugar, pasta and spices were purchased from afar. 
Another local chef, myself, and many students, teachers and kitchen staff from Common Ground High School cooked and served up this fabulous dinner. A wonderful accomplishment, a great learning experience for the students, and a real gift to the community in so many ways. The meal, the silent auction and live auction raised $40,000 for the school.

Unfortunately I do not posses the skill to cook, coordinate a meal like this AND photograph it, so the true essence of the night: enthusiastic, capable teenagers representing the diversity of our little city, cooking, cleaning, working, learning, serving, eating, and growing was not captured in photos. Jason Sobosinski from Caseus restaurant and "The Big Cheese" Food Network Show and I planned and cooked the meal. It was a fun mash-up of our two styles, and in the end it worked wonderfully. The unbelievably hard working coordinator of the event, Joel Tolman is a colleague and friend of mine: thoughtful, smart, collaborative, and an incredible force. Shannon, the new farmer for the school is working wonders with the land and supplied us with an abundance of food: cucumbers, beets, red onions, winter squash, salad greens, kale, chard, herbs, garlic, a 165 pound pig, and more than a dozen chickens.  And a big thank you goes out to Rhonda, Thea and Theresa, the Common Ground Cooks and all the students who helped to prep hundreds of pounds of produce from the farm and wash lots and lots of dishes!!!
Here are some snippets of the food from the night:
Cider Brined Slow Roasted Whole Pig
Poblano Pepper Apple Sauce

Buttermilk-Marinated Common Ground Fried Chicken
Fresh Thyme and Lemon Zest   

Mac and Beaverbrook Farms Cow & Sheep Cheese

Garlic Braised Common Ground Kales & Chards 

Common Ground Quick Pickle Red Onion &          Cucumber Salad with Basil and Tarragon

Common Ground Arugula and Mixed Greens, Roasted Delicata and Candy Roaster Squash & Shredded Beets
Roasted Scallion and Ground Pepita dressing
Beltane Farms Chevre

Warm Honey Bourbon Peach Short Cake & Homemade Creme Fraiche
Our fabulous student waitstaff for the night
 Scallions for the salad dressing roasting on the hot coals of the pig roasting box

Pickled red onions with tarragon and basil, waiting to be tossed with the cucumbers

The pig named "milkbottle" being brined and seasoned to go into the cook box. The students raised this pig, and many stopped by to say "hi" to it, or were fascinated to see how it would be cooked. A few students were sad, which is very understandable, but most were very interested in the process and they all knew he was being raised for food. I had the experience of raising and slaughtering a chicken once when I was a teen, and it gave me a life long appreciation and consciousness about animal rearing and the sources of meat in our country. I now only eat meat that is sustainably raised (which is more expensive and harder to find, so I eat a lot less meat than the average person).

 Thea and Jason cooking fried chicken, also raised on the farm. 
As you can see, they kept things lively in the kitchen!

I was very happy with how the salad turned out. The roasted scallions added a smoky depth to the dressing, and the ground pumpkin seeds gave it a nutty sweetness. The greens, a mix grown on the farm, had been harvested the day before, and it was topped with roasted delicata and candy roaster squashes, which can both be cooked without peeling them, which makes the prep time much quicker, and helps hold the squash together for a dish like this. To add some brightness to the dish, the beets were shredded raw using a fine shredding attachment to the food processor, and some delicious fresh chevre (goat cheese) from Beltane Farms rounded out the dish nicely.

Jason, as a master of all things cheese, made Mac and Cheese using a wonderful assortment of cheeses from Sankows-Beaverbrook Farm.

For dessert we wanted to use an end of summer fruit rather than the usual apples and pears of fall. The white and yellow peaches were the final harvest from near-by Drazen Orchards, a great family run orchard where they practice IPM - integrated pest management to greatly minimize the amount of pesticides and fungicides used. The peaches had to be harvested a few weeks before the dinner, and wouldn't have lasted in the fridge, so a group of students sliced and froze them on sheet pans (no need to peel them!), then transfered them to a large bag. Since they had been frozen we needed to cook them for dessert, so the were roasted with a local honey, bourbon and vanilla bean sauce.
The shortcakes came out great, thanks to the fabulous recipe from Caludia Flemming's 
incredible cookbook "The Last Course".

 The completed dessert: Warm Honey Bourbon Peach Shortcake with Homemade Creme Fraiche.

Creme Fraiche, a french style sour cream, is very easy to make at home, rather than buying an expensive container from the store. 
2 Tablespoons of cultured butter milk or yogurt
2 cups of heavy cream (pasteurized is better than ultrapasteurized)
  1. Mix the ingredients together well. Cover with a towel and let sit out on the counter for 12 to 24 hours, until it is as thick as sour cream. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. For dessert it can be served straight or sweetened and whipped.It can be used in savory dishes as you would use sour cream.
I will post recipes for the complete shortcake dessert, and the salad in the near future, 
so check back soon!
And, if you live anywhere near New Haven, CT go check out Common Ground School, there are lots of opportunities to visit during open farm days and festivals!


  1. Mm, thanks for taking the time to document your epic cooking adventure! I think Common Ground is so awesome. I have visited there several times and think it's great that they're so open to the community stopping by to admire their chickens, load up on pancakes before the Rock-to-Rock bike tour or buy seedlings, like the stellar Sungold tomatoes I got there some years ago. Hats off to you for supporting them.

  2. P.S. Poor Milkbottle, but I'm sure he was delicious!

  3. That whole meal sounds amazing, but I'm really drooling over that Cider Brined Slow Roasted Whole Pig.

    I roast a lot of pigs in my La Caja China, any chance you have your recipe posted anywhere?

    Great article!



    - Perry

    Perry P. Perkins
    “La Caja China Cooking”
    "La Caja China World"

  4. HI Perry,
    I wasn't actually responsible for the pig, that was my friend and chef Jason Sobosinski of Casus restaurant in New Haven, and who recently hosted a new Food Network Show "The Big Cheese". I believe he took apple cider and added a bunch of spices: allspice, pepper, clove, cumin, cinnamon, salt, brown sugar...etc...then injected it in the pig and let it sit for 24 hours. Then it was slow roasted in the box. Hope that helps.