Blue skies at sunset and a crisp fall breeze greeted Dames Who Read when they arrived at Uncommon Ground for dinner and a discussion of In Winter’s Kitchen: Growing Roots and Breaking bread in the Northern Heartland, by Beth Dooley, a Minnesota-based food writer and cook book author.
Helen Cameron, owner of two Uncommon Ground restaurants in Chicago and the first certified urban farm in America, welcomed us with a cider, ginger and rosemary spritzer or a sample of house-made GreenStar beer and delicious appetizers as we strolled past trellises and garden boxes filled with tomatoes, peppers, leeks, herbs and red Chinese long beans, plus an active bee hive.
With two farm managers and seven interns, Helen and her crew harvest 1700 pounds of fresh organic produce each year (equal to about $7000 of their kitchen costs) to be used in the restaurant directly below.
Once we moved downstairs to the dining table, we were presented with a menu that included many of the items grown on the rooftop and which thoughtfully included all of the food stuffs discussed in our book for this session. A salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans in fresh herb vinaigrette was arranged over a corn muffin. Our entrée was a wild rice, sweet potato and smoked carrot fritter topped with roof-top kale, chard, leeks, and piperade, all crowned with a farm fresh egg.
Readers described the book and its writing as “cozy” “warm” and “not scolding” yet very educational and enlightening as it celebrated, chapter by chapter, the native foods of the Midwest that we all depend on for flavor and nutrition during the long, cold winters. Our discussion continued as Helen shared the joys and challenges of producing this food in the current and very real world, stressing the importance of bio-diversity, wise use of compost, seed saving and also the joy in celebrating each delicious bite and in sharing her passion with others in the restaurant.
Dessert continued the evening’s theme: Helen’s grandmother’s recipe for Streusel Cake was adapted to use two varieties of Kinnikinick Farm apples, Wisconsin cranberries, chestnuts and honey and came garnished with crispy sage leaves from the roof. To make it even more festive, one piece came adorned with a candle so that we could all sing Happy Birthday to Shannon Kinsella.
Our immense thanks to Helen Cameron and the entire staff of Uncommon Ground for making this meal into a very literal interpretation and perfect example of what it’s like to eat well from Winter’s Kitchen in the Midwest. –Judith Dunbar Hines