Rambunctious Garden

In the six years we’ve lived and worked on this farm, our perspective on the world around us has changed significantly and somewhat unexpectedly. We arrived here as idealistic young people, with a cultural background that loved and valued nature, and an academic training that emphasized the beauty and inherent value of natural things over human. We didn’t initially intend to farm full-time. Six years into taking ownership of a piece of land and learning how to live both with and on it, we’ve changed somewhat. We still hold dear the idea of wilderness and escape, but have learned a new respect for the potential value in people working with landscapes and ecologies to produce a higher value for humans AND nature.

We were still grappling with this fundamental change in our worldview when we first read Rambunctious Garden, a new book by Columbia-based science writer Emma Marris. This concise and thought-provoking book lays out the very ideas we’d been grappling with and places them in the wider context of a developing change in ecological thinking. We’ve become friends with Emma and her family, having deeply enjoyable and challenging discussions about our similar and different perspectives on land use, nature, and human activities. Emma has agreed to host a book discussion at the farm in November, for any CSA members who read the book and wish to engage further in the issues presented there. Continue reading

The opening of Trey Bistro

This past week, we were honored by an invitation to the soft opening of downtown Columbia’s newest restaurant, Trey Bistro. We’ve been looking forward to this opening for a while now, and were excited to sample the possibilities of this latest venture. Though we’re hardly impartial reviewers, as friends and admirers of Trey’s cooking & support for local foods, we were still thoroughly impressed with the experience and suspect that even those who don’t care about local foods will appreciate the restaurant for the simple reason that the food is so good. Trey seeks out the best, most flavorful ingredients possible and prepares them in creative ways, the result being really delicious food. You can read a nice roundup of the restaurant’s background and opening menu here in the Tribune; we’ll share our own experiences below the break. Continue reading

August day off: birding & Bamboo Terrace

We took our August day off this Tuesday, heading down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area for a morning of birding, followed by lunch at the new Chinese restaurant in town, Bamboo Terrace. A post-lunch hour at the library followed by an afternoon on the couch at home felt very nice. The restaurant was a pleasant experience, and we’ll give a brief review below. Continue reading

Why we like our restaurants

We’ll be selling to four Columbia restaurants in 2011 (that we know of), and each has specific and unique reasons that make us grateful for their support. I can say from both experience and hearsay that some restaurants and chefs are more difficult to work with; not returning calls or contacts, not upholding their promised orders/interests, not holding realistic expectations of farmers, not handling produce well, and so on. Not everyone who claims or uses local sources is equal in their actual execution of that ideal. I’d suspect that many restaurant customers really don’t see the behind-the-scenes differences in how restaurants work with farmers (or not). Here’s why we love the ones we do work with (note: the exclusion of a local restaurant shouldn’t be taken as implicit criticism; there are many we’ve never approached).

An all-around class-act restaurant, Sycamore serves excellent food in a perfect atmosphere, and chef Mike Odette is a real pleasure to work with. He’s always interested in working with diverse, seasonal ingredients, reliably responds to contacts, is willing to pay a fair price for good product but also to gently explain when we’re asking too much, and is just all-around supportive and easy to work with as a farmer selling direct. He’s been a real mentor for us in developing our restaurant sales; very helpful in helping us understand and meet the high standards he requires for his ingredients, and as far as I’m concerned is the model of how farm-table interactions should work from the restaurant end. The first time I saw our farm on their menu, I felt like I’d won an award, and it’s still a thrill to serve them.

Uprise Bakery
Courtney may be the most flexible of our contacts in adapting to changing conditions and supplies, and has often salvaged a poor market day for us and others by buying up unsold stock at the end of the morning and finding ways to use it on their broad, diverse menu. They juggle purchases from many different farms and do a really nice job of trying to support many different growers. They’re very willing to take unusual items like sweet yellow cucumbers, will preserve items for the off-season (like freezing bulk okra), and again are easy and supportive to work with.

Main Squeeze
As the best option for organic & vegetarian/vegan food in town, Leigh really shares our values and gives clear preference to true organic farms in her purchasing. We can’t supply everything she needs, but she is the most willing to pay whatever price the farmer thinks is fair and builds her business around that core support for local, organic food and sustainability. We’re really grateful for her principles.

Red & Moe
A new customer for us last year, we expect to sell more and more to this maker of excellent true pizza. Trey & the owners take their commitment to using entirely local foods very seriously indeed, purchasing and preserving large quantities of ingredients throughout the year to minimize their ties to generic food service. We’re really looking forward to building this relationship, especially with some of our larger core crops like garlic (they bought & used a lot last year).

We’ve hosted & fed all these folks at our farm, some multiple times; just their willingness to take the time to visit and learn about their sources tells you something about their commitment and value to local foods. All have supported us and taught us about our business, and we’re grateful to them. Please thank them by supporting their restaurants.

Review: La Terraza Grill

This is a long, detailed review. Please read it all, but if you’re short on time, the result is we’re thrilled with this new Mexican restaurant in Columbia that seems to be striving for a more creative, authentic, high-quality menu than the typical Mexican place. Very much worth trying. Kinda reminded me of House of Chow in which the standard items are normal, but the unusual ones are really good. Onward:

Good, authentic Mexican food can be hard to find. Granted, I’ve never been to Mexico and am operating mostly on second-hand knowledge and general culinary awareness/standards. My experience has been largely that American Mexican restaurants are pretty generic, if not outright bad. The only places I’ve enjoyed as good, well-made, non-chemical/canned/oversalted Mexican-inspired food were a great place in Burlington VT (endorsed by a friend with significant 1st-hand experience in Mexico) and Frontera Grill in Chicago. The last (and only) Mexican meal we had in Columbia, years ago, was Gawd-awful. In a review like this, I’m judging more on the general quality of the cooking and the ingredients than the authenticity; I want to know if the place gives me restaurant mouth or not.

So it was with reservation but intrigue that I saw a long line of positive comments on a review of La Terraza Grill from Como Whine & Dine, a local food blog I read but don’t necessarily trust. That was followed by a strong review from Show Me Eats, a source I very much trust. The combination was enough; after a long recent day, we headed into Columbia to treat ourselves to something different and give it a shot, funded by an Easter gift from parents hoping to encourage us to get off the farm now and then (it worked; thanks!).
The location stinks; tucked into the backside of a strip mall southwest of Providence & Nifong. It’s a maze of poorly planned access streets boxed in by heavy-traffic main roads; development planning SNAFU 101. Probably cheaper rent, though, and they had done a nice job with the interior. Two immediate pluses: no loud music to drown out conversation, and no glaring, flickering TVs no one’s watching. It was quiet and easy to talk; snatches of singing in Spanish could be heard from the open kitchen visible from our booth. Very comfortable.
If anything, the service was too eager. Our server stopped by seemingly every few minutes, though he was friendly and happy to answer questions. Several other staff also stopped by, such that we had to fend off repeated offers of more chips, more water, readiness to order, etc. Our server had a fairly strong accent and spoke very quietly, almost a mutter, so it was sometimes hard to understand him. He earned a good tip, though, as he was pleasant and helpful and just plain good.
The opening chips & salsa were very good. Chips were corny, not at all too salted (we’re very picky about too much salt). Salsa was obviously fresh-made, with nice chunks of cilantro and other herbs, and none of the canned/salted/preservative flavor too often found in such things. I like a chunkier salsa while this one was more liquid, but that’s a personal preference and not a question of quality. Our server confirmed that they make small batches of it as-needed, and ours had been made only a few minutes before. The relative amounts were just right; we finished the last of the salsa with the last of the chips.
Joanna’s Vegetarian Plate #4 was good. Cheese enchilada, a large chile relleno, and uninspiring but not bad beans & rice. She pronounced herself happy, and I liked the flavor of the relleno sauce. No trace of odd additives, always a deal-breaker for us. Seemed that everything was scratch-made or at least from decent ingredients.
My Camaron (shrimp) Ala Diabla was delicious; a plate of good-quality shrimp with a hot chipotle/chile sauce including green peppers, onions, and whole chiles. The menu claimed jalapenos, but these were not jalapenos. These were long, thin, red peppers reminiscent of the Thai hot peppers that are a staple of our kitchen, but hotter. I like hot food, and rarely can get it done well in the Midwest. This sauce was well-named and not for the faint of heart, especially if you chopped up the whole red peppers and included them in bites, but I found it excellent. It was served with piping hot fresh corn tortillas that were perfect for wrapping everything else in. Damn good. On the side, the rice was fine but more typical. The guacamole salad was shredded iceberg topped with a pico de gallo-esque mix of chopped tomatoes, herbs, avocado, and sour cream. For an iceberg salad, it was pretty good, and cut the heat of the shrimp nicely. I tried to get the name of the peppers, but our server either wasn’t sure or couldn’t get it across to his non-Spanish-speaking customer. German & Russian I can do. Spanish, not so much, unfortunately.
Joanna’s classic mojito was nothing special, tasting more of seltzer than anything else. My La Playa margarita was quite good, though I’m hardly an expert on margaritas or tequila. Would’ve been nice presentation to have them in something other than beer glasses, but that’s not a big deal.
We opted for the homemade three-milk cake, which explained to us as milk, evaporated milk, and some kind of sweet milk (dulce de leche, maybe?). It didn’t strike us as much different than a typical white cake with frosting, though moister (in a good way). Not something we’d normally opt for, but it wasn’t bad either and we polished it off. I would have gone for the flan, but they hadn’t made it yet.
This was damn good overall, with a few understandable quirks and lower-quality items (like the refried beans). They’re clearly trying to strike a balance between American-Mexican food enough people will recognize to support them in a crowded marketplace, and more interesting dishes that are probably more authentic and at least more creative for the foodies who stop in. Any such place offering items like beef tongue, truly hot sauces, and a wide variety of seafood & oysters is trying to move beyond the box, and I commend them for it. When we commented on this, our server proudly explained “yes, we are trying to cook this the way it is back in Mexico”. There are lots of reasonable vegetarian options, and the seafood options alone had me paralyzed with indecision. I’d love to see them offer goat someday; maybe we can supply it?
Prices are quite manageable; we left with a $44 tab, including drinks, dessert, and generous tip, and another meal’s worth of excellent leftovers. Two vegetarian meals with water would have had us under $20. Hours later, writing this up, I have yet to feel any sign of over-salted-ness or weird chemical aftertastes we’ve often had from lesser restaurants. I concur with the other reviews; we’re definitely going back, and that means a lot coming from us. It may be a go-to place some Saturday afternoons following market when we’re exhausted and don’t want to cook. Thanks to Como Whine & Dine and Show Me Eats for pointing out La Terraza; I sure hope they succeed.

Tasting meal results

Sunday’s farm tasting event was great fun. We had a wonderful set of folks who gave us an afternoon of their time, having fun tasting lots of items and just creating a nice atmosphere. We spent a few hours going through the different dishes, then took a farm tour while Joanna compiled the results.

Quick results (full disclosure below) showed that for most things, the on-farm products came out slightly to seriously ahead. In a few cases the non-farm product was preferred. Goat was strongly preferred to venison, and chicken eggs were slightly preferred to goose.
We did our best to keep the tastings neutral and unbiased, but still learned a few things about running an experiment like this. Every item was served labelled A or B, to which we had a key in the kitchen. We rolled dice to determine the order and labelling within samples, such that there was no predictable pattern to whether a store or farm item was A or B in a given item.

We had scoring sheets set up for folks to rate each item 1-5, with 1 being the highest. This taught us a lesson, as many folks (including, shamefully, me) at times reversed things in their heads and ranked things backwards (giving higher numbers to better tastes). We think we sorted out all those mistakes before doing the tallies, but if/when we do this again, we’ll probably have a clearer system in which the ratings are clearly labelled for each item, like a multiple choice test or something. With so much to keep track of, the system really needs to be obvious. Good lesson.

We also did our best to make the preparations identical, but some differences crept in anyway. For example, the store-bought edamame were noticeably larger than ours, so that may have affected the cooking times and thus the quality. But you can’t get everything perfect when you’re serving nine people 16 courses in a few hours from a home kitchen.


Remember, 1 is the best and 5 is the worst. These are the mean scores from our guests only. Joanna and I also tallied our preferences, but we didn’t want our numbers to bias the results (given that we could easily identify which product was which in most cases).

Farm: 2.29
Purchased: 2.43

Several comments indicated that the farm corn was crisper, but the flavor wasn’t much different.

Okra pickles
Farm: 2.43
Purchased: 1.86

This didn’t surprise me; the purchased pickles were far crisper, and ours were a little too vinegary in comparison. The texture may relate to the multiple preservatives/chemicals in the ingredient list, but the effect was still there.

Morningland (MO): 2.57
Farm goat (MO): 1.71
Cabot (VT): 2.00
Irish: 1.86

This was a bit surprising; we like our cheddar but didn’t expect it to beat out Vermont and Irish cheddars.

Boiled chicken eggs
On-farm: 1.71
Organic Valley: 2.71

I thought this difference was fairly subtle, but the results were fairly clear. This was a close comparison, as Organic Valley is widely regarded as the best of the large-scale producer brands, and our eggs are coming from winter chickens who still are eating mostly grain and not a lot of foraged protein. Our yolks were noticeably yellower, but the flavors were only subtly different. If we can beat the best store option at the low end of our chickens’ flavor potential, that’s not bad. And it speaks well for O.V., as I’ve had far blander store eggs before.

Edamame, frozen in-shell
Farm: 1.83
Store: 3.00

The flavor and texture were better with ours. The store version were larger than ours, so perhaps the cooking changed things, but we prepared both according to the bag’s directions to give them the benefit of the doubt. Folks who had bought our fresh edamame agreed that the frozen ones weren’t nearly as good, but they still ranked above the store-bought.

Edamame, frozen shelled
Farm: 2.43
Store: 2.86

The pre-shelled frozen was noticeably less good than the in-shell. Clearly keeping them in the shell protects the flavor somehow. This was effectively a tie, though it’s worth noting that the farm frozen ones we used in both tests were our least favorite of four varieties grown last year, plus they were our seconds from market harvest (those rejected for market sale). So anyone buying them from us and freezing them got a better bean, but these still tied or beat the store’s.

Goose vs. chicken eggs (scrambled)
Goose: 2.14
Chicken: 1.71

This was a surprise, as we generally think the goose eggs taste richer and better. However, in the blind test the difference was more subtle. One person thought the goose suffered from being unusual, such that the familiar taste of chicken made it rate higher on instinct. Another possibility is that the goose eggs get tastier as spring arrives, and their diet becomes fresher and more diverse (right now they’re mostly eating grain and hay). The eggs we sold at market last year in late April and May got rave reviews, and I agree that the current ones are relatively mild. The textures are noticeably different when scrambled, as goose froths up and becomes airier than chicken.

Dried soup beans
Farm mixed heirloom: 1.57
Store organic pintos: 3.14

This one was obvious, and backed up what market customers told us in the fall and through the winter. Our heirloom beans taste way better than standard beans. We have to charge a lot to make them economically practical, but they are definitely a culinary treat.

Fresh-ground farm corn: 2.14
Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal: 1.57

This one REALLY surprised us, partly because the night before as we cooked up the polenta, we found the Bob’s taste to be strongly bitter (rancid) to the point of spitting it out. We were sure it would be blown away in the test. Yet after sitting overnight, and a quick shot under the broiler, they were fairly similar in taste with only a hint of bitterness in the Bob’s. Also, we found the texture of our meal to be far smoother, with the Bob’s being far clumpier, and expected that to count against it. Someone suggested that, ironically, the clumpy texture of Bob’s and the ultra-smooth texture of ours had led people to subtly assume the farm meal was the clumpy one and rate it higher. Who knows. In this case we clearly lost, but after tasting (and smelling) the just-cooked Bob’s cornmeal the night before, I’m so glad we grow our own. I’m not sure what chemical changes the broiling made, but we’ll stick to ours. Given the already rancid early flavor, it’s not comforting that the “Sell by” date on Bob’s is July 2011.

Basic tomato sauce
Home-canned Sunny Acres tomatoes: 1.57
Muir Glen organic canned tomatoes: 1.86

This was closer than we thought it would be. Like the polenta, we made the sauce the night before, and on early tastings the Muir Glen version was nasty, with a strong canned/chemical/salt flavor. But again, after a night of sitting with the other basic ingredients of our garlic and dried basil, the two sauces ended up being pretty close in flavor. Maybe cooking mellows the flavor of some of the preservatives, though several tasters did identify the distinct canned flavor. Once again, like the polenta, even where these are a draw we’re thrilled to be using fresh ingredients because the quality of the purchased stuff out of the bag/can is really different. And it’s worth noting that the local tomatoes were grown in 2009, a very wet, cool summer that tended to make tomatoes blander and more watery than usual, so we had a tough-weather-condition local ingredient going up against one of the highest-end canned version.

Goat vs. Venison, red-wine marinated
Goat: 1.71
Venison: 3.14

Clear win for goat, mostly based on texture. Most people didn’t see much difference in flavor, but the venison was tougher while the goat was tender and flaky. This was all the more impressive since I couldn’t match the cuts exactly from what we had left in the freezer, and used venison backstrap and goat “ham”. So even with a higher-quality cut of venison, it still lost badly. Of course, we were still comparing a young, milk-fed kid with a mature wild deer, but I wasn’t expecting that spread.

Green beans
Farm-frozen: 1.83
Store frozen: 2.83

This was a bit unfair, as we used frozen Fin de Bagnol beans, our top-quality filet beans, as against a standard frozen organic bean. The appearance difference was quite obvious, and may have influenced the results. Still, folks were pretty clear on this.

Goat vs. Venison, fresh-ground burgers
Goat: 1.71
Venison 3.00

Again a clear win for goat, with similar comments on a superior texture for goat though the flavor wasn’t much different. Clearly we need to raise more meat goats and figure out how to have the meat legally and economically butchered. Goat is certainly underrated in the US, especially young, milk-fed kid like this one was.

Sweet potatoes (roasted fries)
Farm-stored: 2.17
Storebought: 1.83

A narrow win for the store (conventional from Hy-Vee). I really couldn’t tell the difference, and most folks felt it was subtle. Ours probably haven’t been stored at ideal conditions, and depending on where Hy-Vee got theirs, they might have been fresher, though they looked very beat-up surficially. But the good news is, we don’t grow sweet potatoes for sale, just for us, and if we can match the quality available elsewhere in a far cleaner and known form, we’re happy with that in our pantry.

Dried tomatoes
Farm dehydrator-dried: 1.57
Store sun-dried: 2.71

This was pretty clear. Ours were sweeter with a better texture, while the storebought ones were darker and tougher with an odder flavor. We’re not allowed to make and sell these without a certified kitchen, but customers can certainly make their own to get a better quality than store-bought.

Chamomile tea
Farm-dried whole blossoms:
Storebought tea bags:

We were all a bit punchy by the end, possibly from the effects of the wine, beer, and hard cider tastings brought by guests, so data didn’t get recorded for the tea. However, the discussion made it clear that everyone though the farm tea was far more flavorful and good. So we need to find out whether we can legally dry blossoms for sale, and whether we can set a rational price.

Overall, having done our best to buy the highest-quality equivalents, prepare everything simultaneously/equally, serve them blind in random order, and get reasonably accurate ratings, we’re happy with how this turned out. The corn/polenta was the biggest surprise, but given the large number of customers who have told us how much they like our cornmeal overall, and our experiences with the raw/early cooked store stuff, we’re probably not going to worry too much about that test. Fascinating that goat was far more popular than venison, but at least it’s theoretically possible for us to legally sell goat.

Overall, our farm products held their own or beat the best store-available alternative, in March when they’ve all been frozen or stored for many months, and with far more known growing, handling, and harvest methods with far fewer food miles on them. If we can match the stores even in winter, I know what we can do in summer (and what customers can do with our products).

I think Scott Rowson asked the best question: “So the results seem to show that the best-scoring items are the ones you can’t sell, like cheese. How do you feel about that?”. Well, I feel pretty annoyed. If the cheese we make in our home can outrank some very high-end commercially available cheddars, what justification is there for keeping it illegal? I’d happily submit every round to a health department swab test to prove it’s “clean”, whatever that means, and I think everyone at this meal would happily have paid for some. Good thing we have food safety laws to protect us from ourselves.

Grousing aside, it was a great day, with great people, just a really nice fun atmosphere. Thanks to everyone who took a big chunk out of their day to join us.

Broadway Brewery

Like a great many people, we’ve been eagerly awaiting a chance to try the new Broadway Brewery in downtown Columbia. Flat Branch has good beer, but they serve generic food made from generic ingredients, usually with way too much salt. For non-local readers, Broadway is being opened by several area farmers and local-foods advocates, and is aiming to source a very high percentage of their food within central Missouri in addition to brewing beer. Take a look at their website and initial menu, which should set the heart of any foodie racing. The mere fact that they don’t even own a fryer tells you a lot about their goals. Note: the online menu isn’t quite the same as the menu we got, but it gives you the idea.

We finally got our chance on Saturday, as we needed to run a series of errands after market, including some downtown. As it turns out, we had a very good market day, and so celebrated by circulating some of those dollars back into the local economy. Here’s our review of the place:

They’ve done a truly fantastic job with the look of the place. It’s the perfect blend of formal/tasteful with laid-back/pub. Lots of wood, neutral colors, dark enough to be comfortable but not cavernous. There was only one TV, a flat-screen against one wall, and it was off. Perfect. Nothing wrong with a pub with a TV for major sporting events, but I hate trying to enjoy conversation with lots of flickering going on all around me. Walking back toward the bathrooms, you get the expected but well-done plate glass windows into the brewing area. Overall I can’t imagine a more attractive and well-balanced design for a high-end brewpub. A+.

The menu is fantastic. Definitely a step above generic pub fare, with both standards and creative options. Rare among restaurants, they have vegetarian options that foodie vegetarians would actually want to eat, not relying just on veggie burgers, tofu, and mushroom slabs on buns. And the meat options are heavily sourced from real farms, and also show creativity. It’s an excellent job of balancing high-end-foodie with beer-matching comfort food. A.

Joanna ordered the Watermelon salad (arugula, cubed watermelon, feta, and crispy onions dressed with balsamic glaze.) and the Potato pizza (cheddar cheese, thin sliced potato, and red onions. Garnished with chopped pistachios.). This latter was a major leap of faith on her part, as we have very high standards for our pizzas, making them at home the Italian way with ultra-thin crust, quality cheese, and fresh ingredients. It’s very hard to get a pizza in America that doesn’t use cheap cheese, too much salt, and/or bad crust. Potato pizza in particular is a specialty of hers.

She was very happy with both choices. The arugula was excellent, with a nice rich flavor but none of the spicy bitterness that so often develops when we try to grow the stuff. The pizza was good. White cheddar (THANK YOU), thin crust, not greasy, potatoes about right. The only knock was that the pizza had clearly been baked on a metal pan, not on a stone. If you’ve won Joanna on restaurant pizza, though, you’re doing something right.

I ordered the Antipasto plate (whole roasted garlic, red pepper pesto, spicy olives, and baba ganoush. Served with goat cheese croutons and grilled pita.) and the Terra Bella Farms lamb burger (not on the website, but local lamb with tomato, lettuce, and so on). The tasting plate came with slices of pita and a few hefty chunks of (Uprise?) bread. The two spreads were very good and not over-spiced or -salted, and the olives were nice. The garlic was pretty crunchy, making me think it hadn’t been roasted long enough, and the flavor was pretty bland. Compared to what I know our garlic tastes like roasted, I wasn’t impressed. Otherwise the plate was excellent.

The lamb burger’s bun was good and solid, a step up from the squishy white bun one normally expects. The burger itself was huge, probably a 1/2 pounder, definitely a bit much for me. The lamb flavor was good, but it tasted highly over-salted or -spiced. It reminded me of a batch of sausage I made a few years ago, in which I accidentally dumped half the spice container in and ended up with a wildly too-strong batch that dried your mouth out just eating it. This wasn’t that bad, but did taste too strong. Not sure if that’s from the kitchen or if the burgers come pre-spiced from the processor, but it did bug me a bit and make me very thirsty for the rest of the day.

So overall I’d give the food a solid B+ to A. Nothing wrong that isn’t likely just a kitchen getting its feet under it, and still far better than all but a handful of Columbia restaurants.

They only had two of their own brews on tap, a wheat and a nut brown ale, so naturally we tried both. The wheat was tasty but a little bitter for our tastes, though I’m not sure if that’s just how they want it or are still learning. I like wheat beer smoother. The nut brown ale, on the other hand, was fantastic. Rich, smooth, and far too easy to slide down the gullet. I could have had a lot more of that one. A.

Seating, water, and initial service were all timely and courteous. Then the server and the kitchen won our hearts entirely by taking their time. I hate ordering an appetizer and lingering over its flavors, only to have the next plate of food plunked down while I’m still halfway through. Our server allowed us to finish completely, and even gave us a rest before bringing out the main course. I don’t know if this was intentional, or even if it’s really good practice overall since some people will want faster service, but we were thrilled to be allowed to relax and savor the food without being rushed. Well done, folks, though it doesn’t hurt to feed the parking meter a bit extra before dining here. Only one demerit on the service; I wasn’t asked how I wanted my burger cooked, and it came out redder than I care for. A minor point, but worth noting, especially for a burger that thick in which there was a LOT of red. A

Wow. This place will likely join Sycamore, Main Squeeze, and Uprise Bakery on our most frequented restaurant list. With the inevitable tweaks and improvements that will come with being open longer, I think they’ve got a bright future.

Review: Blade Runner Sharpening services

With a working farm and a very active kitchen, we have a lot of blades around. We’ve taken variously good care of these over time, and do some rough sharpening of our tools, but nothing very professional or overly respectful to the poor things. So when Corby Roberts stopped me on the sidewalk in downtown Columbia recently, having recognized me from the Columbia Farmers Market, I was primed to be his next customer.

Corby runs a mobile sharpening service, Blade Runner Sharpening, which he operates out of a large truck. The Columbia Tribune recently did an article on the business. He’s focusing on restaurants and private kitchens, but was intrigued by the diverse array of potential sharpening jobs on our farm, and agreed to give it a shot. So last week he drove his truck down into our little valley and parked next to the stream, where I greeted him with a pickup-full of kitchen knives and all sorts of farm tools.

It took him a few hours, but he was able to work with just about everything we threw at him, including all our kitchen knives, shovels, hoes, planting knives, and even two antique scythes I’d picked up at farm auctions. We’ve been using the tools since, and the difference is very noticeable, particularly on the hoes and scythes. He even restored/upgraded the serrations on tools that needed it. I can’t yet assess how long the edges will last, but the initial sharpening was excellent.

The mobile business is a neat idea, and worked great for us. He’s working to establish drop-off points around town and a more reliable location for the truck (he was turned down for membership in the Columbia Farmers Market this year), but in the meantime I’d say he’s worth a call for anything from a few knives to a garage full of gardening tools. Friendly, accomodating, and good work is an excellent combination for any business. Look for the truck around town or just visit the website to make contact. It was definitely worth it for us.

Review: Local wheat flour

Margot McMillen of Terra Bella Farm in Auxvasse, MO, has launched the Missouri Grain Project (MGP), whose first product is locally grown and freshly milled wheat flour. It went on sale recently at the Root Cellar in downtown Columbia, so I armed myself with a few bags and started testing the product to see how it compares with store brands. To give a fair comparison, I purchased a bag of King Arther (KA) %100 Organic Whole Wheat Flour, which is a pretty high-end brand (our staple flour up to this point).

Keep in mind, this is whole-wheat flour. That means that the entire wheat grain has been milled and kept in the flour, unlike white flour, which is far more heavily processed to remove most of the actual wheat. White flour will keep longer, because all the spoilable parts like germ have been removed, but those parts also contain most of the nutrition and flavor. Whole wheat flour won’t have as long a shelf life, but will have a richer flavor and better nutritional content. This is what people have eaten for most of human history, until some industrialist figured out how to destroy flour to make it last longer and bleached it white to convince people it was better.

In any case, our very first comparison was shelf date. MGP’s flour is clearly labeled with the harvest date (July 08) and the milling date (October 08). This is fresh stuff. Compare that to the KA, which had an expiration date of late November 08 printed in the bag. With no milling or harvest date, who knows how old it was. But that’s what you get at a grocery store.

To really focus on the flavor and texture of the flour, Joanna made some very basic wheat flour tortillas and submitted me to a blind taste test. Frankly, the difference was pretty obvious. The MGP tortillas had a noticeably richer, stronger wheat taste, and had a better texture. The KA tortillas, while perfectly serviceable, were definitely drier, staler-tasting, and just plain not as good. You haven’t understood the power of fresh wheat until you’ve tried this side-by-side.

I also used it in a few other applications, such as pie crusts, where it again performed well. It made a wonderfully rich-flavored crust for an apple pie, in which the wheat flavor really balanced the sweeter apples. Joanna notes that it takes liquid different from the KA flour, so be a little cautious if you’re used to the behavior of other flours.

Now to address the elephant in the room: price. MGP flour is expensive, at around $2.50 for the bag you see above. That’s going to be above some folks’ budgets, but here’s something to consider. Food is just like any other product in a free market: you get what you pay for. Too often we Americans turn strangely socialist when it comes to food, expecting to have the right to some artificially low price that doesn’t actually reflect the quality, production methods, or overall impact that the food has. This flour SHOULD cost more; it’s better. And because it’s locally sourced and has fewer miles and middlemen associated with it, far more of that cost is going toward a fair earning for those who actually produced it. Fair trade applies to American farmers, too, not just Columbian ones.

So pop on down to the Root Cellar, grab a bag, and try it for yourself. Just about anyone can afford $2.50 every now and then, even if it’s only for special occasions. And if you want to save money, consider buying MGP’s whole wheatberries instead, and grinding them yourself. Like most grains (and corn), the unmilled grain will last for a very long time, only starting to decay once it’s milled. That’s why we store our corn whole, and only mill it as-needed. Buying the wheatberries will save you money, and they’re quite versatile in their own right.

Book review: The Cornbread Gospels

One of the joys of enjoying good food, especially Slow Food, is building an appreciation of the subtle differences in even simple dishes that can be driven by fascinating cultural, regional, environmental, and other factors. Most cuisines are traditionally far more diverse and interesting than the homogenized standards encountered in standard American restaurants (Italian food is particularly offensively Americanized, in my personal opinion). Those who enjoy exploring the diversity of world foods often forget that America, too, was once a rich tapestry of local culinary traditions, in which each region, state, county, and town had its own way of cooking that was driven by the local conditions, traditions, and varieties raised (what we now nostalgically refer to as heirlooms and heritage breeds).

The author of The Cornbread Gospels makes an enjoyable case that corn, and cornbread in particular, can be used to trace and define some of the regional culinary traditions in America that are just barely hanging on through the blustery winds of commercial homogenization. The book’s foundation is a survey of cornbread recipes throughout the country and the historical/cultural/regional factors that underlie a wonderfully diverse yet simple food. Boasting over 200 recipes, the book widens its focus to cover the uses of corn around the world, throughout which it spread following the European arrival in the Americas.

It is beyond the scope of this review to cover all the diverse and interesting recipes in this book, so I will focus on the subject of most direct interest to us: cornbread, and in particular Southern cornbread. Back in early October, I wrote about growing our own heirloom dent corn, from which we made and sold cornbread at market. We quickly learned that many folks have strong opinions about their cornbread and its ingredients, a fascinating dynamic covered at length in The Cornbread Gospels. The book opens with a survey of cornbread recipes collected around the country, with particular emphasis on the differences between Northern and Southern cornbread (the latter generally being far more “pure” with no flour, sweetener, or other unnecessary ingredients).

I decided to undertake a study of “Southern cornbread” as the author defines it, and put together a table of ingredients for all the Southern recipes in the book. As you can see, they are all fairly simple, mostly cornmeal, buttermilk, and some leavener. The table is arranged from “most pure” at the top to “most Northern” at the bottom, and several patterns jump out right away. For example, the recipes on pages 21 and 27 are virtually identical (the main difference is that 27 uses self-rising cornmeal, for which I estimated the individual leavening amounts for the purpose of comparison; 23 is the same way). Pages 14, 24, and 25 are very subtle variations of each other, and if doubled are nearly identical to 21. The main differences are baking temperature and egg quantities, and at times the type of cornmeal used.

Of course, cornbread is more than raw data. Though each of these recipes are subtle variations on a theme, what does not come out in the table are the personal stories, histories, and cultures that influenced the different recipes. One might be from the Arkansas delta region, another from the Tennessee hills, each cooked subtly differently and infused with the traditions that shaped this humble food into a unique product for its makers. For this alone, the book is worth it, though I took the analysis further and tested several recipes.

I chose pages 12 and 21 as opposite ends of the spectrum. Though included in the Southern section, page 12 is about as Northern as it gets by the author’s own definitions, using half flour, a lot of sweetener, and a significantly lower temperature than most of the purer, higher-temperature recipes. The results can be observed above, with the pure page 21 on the left and the Northern page 12 on the right. Both were tasty to us, but the differences were clear. The unadulterated corn flavor was far stronger in 21, and the higher temperature resulted in a nicely browned crust across the bread. 12 was sweeter, softer and more cake-like, which is indeed how the author defines Northern cornbread. Try them both and see if your roots match your taste buds (in my case, my Mississippi heritage wins over my Minnesota heritage).

We also dipped into the more eclectic recipes toward the back of the book, which offer a wide survey of possible ways to use cornmeal. The recipe for Rosemary Corn Crackers on page 156 caught our eye, and did not disappoint. These were very simple, though taking a bit of concentration to roll out correctly, and had a lovely crispness and unique flavor. Not a pairing I would have come up with on my own, and a lovely discovery. You can see the results above.

Overall this is an enjoyable book that offers a worthwhile look into the culinary history of corn along with some very interesting recipes. At times the writing was too flowery or cute for my taste, as the author tends to enthusiastically wax poetic about the more ethereal virtues of corn, but that does not detract from the value of the basic contents and the basic quality of the recipes we tried. Our own verdict on cornbread? When made with commercial cornmeal, we prefer the sweeter Northern varieties, which compensate for the lack of real flavor in the meal. When made with our own home-grown heirloom dent corn, freshly ground into course meal, a truly simple Southern cornbread allows the real flavor to shine, and comes the closest to what cornbread ought to be and was in the glory days of America’s regional food system.