By Dame Stacey Ballis
On a glorious summer day, twelve Dames drove to rural Elburn, Ill., for a visit to Rustic Road Farm. Owned and operated by Chef Marc Bernard and his husband, Luis, the five-year old organic farm grows fruits and vegetables, and is home to over 600 free-range chickens, a herd of goats, a trio of sheep, and four happy Red Wattle pigs. Marc was kind enough to devote a part of his day off to touring us around the bucolic property, explaining how he has transformed his life from full-time stressed Executive Chef to a calmer, happier farmer.
“It’s still a busy life, I still work seven days a week, but it is on my terms, I set the schedule,” said Marc, who explained how the farm has grown from just the acreage on their property to include over 18 acres leased on nearby plots. He and Luis have recently added two new buildings on the land: a large barn, which will be used for assembling the 400 CSA shares they currently supply as well as processing the honey from their beehives and eventually dairy products, and a new hoop house, currently home to rows of heirloom tomato plants.
“As a chef, I was always focused on how really great produce doesn’t need much to fancy it up,” Marc said. “And now here on the Farm, especially in the summer, almost everything we eat is something we grow, we rarely have to go to the grocery store! And we only produce what we really love.”
That is apparent in both the tour and the lunch to which we were treated. Baby goats scampered around playfully, submitting to some petting from charmed Dames Veronica Hastings and Tammy Mizrahi. Dame Julie Chernoff discovered a truly free-range egg that had been randomly laid underneath a piece of farm equipment. New Dame Liz Barrett was taken with the crowing rooster who was showing off for us, full-voice, about every five minutes!
Marc explained that the Red Wattle pigs, who were happily wallowing in a cooling mud puddle in the hot afternoon sun, were the third breed with which he and Luis have worked, and they believe this is the one that will stick. “They simply taste the best,” he said. “Taste is everything.”
And so it was, as we came to find out during our lunch. We headed inside to the gorgeous country kitchen, outfitted with a professional stove in a stone-lined niche with a generous island and two kitchen tables. Refreshed with wine, water and various flavors of a locally brewed ginger beer, Marc treated us to a cooking lesson. First up was a basic lemon vinaigrette lightly sweetened with his orange blossom honey and designed to brighten up the simple salad of Marc’s lettuces, which he garnished with chive blossoms and 10-minute eggs from his chickens. Then, he walked us through prep for a quick sweet and sour pickle using Szechuan peppercorns and chile flakes from The Spice House, much to Dame Patty Erd’s delight. The pickle, with daikon and carrot, was garnished with fresh mint. Paired with a similar cucumber pickle from Marc’s larder, the two would become part of the meal. Marc then talked us through his process for slow-roasting pork shoulder and making the perfect roasted chicken, both of which were filling the kitchen with delicious aromas. As he cooked, he regaled us with tales of one of his mentors – a tough-as-nails chef who really changed the way Marc looked at his own cooking. Having worked with the same chef, Dame Judith Hines was also able to share a story or two about the chef in question, who was clearly a memorable character!
Platters of pulled pork and roasted chicken arrived at the tables with bowls of jasmine rice and a housemade hot sauce, along with piles of red lettuce leaves for the Dames to make lettuce wraps. The simple flavors melded beautifully, and silence fell over the room as we all dove into the perfect marriage of soft lettuce, succulent meats, sweet and crunchy pickles and spicy sauce. Dame Jen Lamplough said she could eat this meal every day for a month!
While we were eating, Marc took us through a preparation for a simple olive oil and polenta cake, which he served with strawberries macerated in his honey, along with homemade goat-milk yogurt for a perfect, light summer dessert. With the exception of the strawberries (and the rice), everything we ate was produced on the farm. Marc explained that his growing strategy for strawberries causes the crop to come in later, but we still enjoyed the delicious local ones he sourced.
Satiated, we all followed Marc and Luis to the farmstand store where we stocked up on jowl bacon, pork shoulders, honey, pickles, other canned goods, and plenty of fresh eggs before thanking Marc for being so generous with his day off. It was a perfect adventure for a summer day, and everyone had a terrific time. Thanks to Marc and Luis Bernard for their generosity, and to Dame Norma Maloney for organizing!
Rustic Road Farm is open to the public on Saturdays, you can get information on them on their website or their Facebook page. They sell their wares at the Farmer’s Marcet in Wheaton, and CSAs can be picked up at the farm or the Marcet.
Here are some of the recipes Marc was kind enough to share with us!
Slow-Cooked Pork Shoulder
3 pounds pork shoulder roast
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Mix the salt and sugar together and rub the mix all over the pork shoulder. Transfer to a zip-top bag and marinate overnight.
The next day, remove from the bag and place on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan.
Cook in a 225°F – 250°F oven for 5 to 6 hours, or until tender enough to shred with a fork. Serve in lettuce cups with jasmine rice, quick pickles (recipe follows) and the hot sauce of your choice, Marc makes his own based on a Korean gochujang.
1 pound cucumbers, thinly sliced (optional: 1 pound daikon or 1 pound carrot, cut into 2-inch julienne strips)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch chile flake
Pinch ground Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint for garnish
Toss the cucumbers (or daikon or carrots) with salt and let sit for 20 minutes to draw off the excess water. Squeeze dry and place in a new bowl. Whisk remaining brine ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil until sugar is dissolved. Toss the cucumbers with the brine, remove from heat and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes before serving or transferring to a glass container. Will keep a few days in the fridge in the brine.
Olive Oil Polenta Cake
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
grated zests of one lemon and one orange
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup polenta or cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/4 cup fruity olive oil
Whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add 1/3 the dry mix to the egg mixture and just combine, followed by 1/3 of the oil and mix through. Repeat with the remaining dry ingredients and oil. Pour batter into a 9” greased springform pan, and bake at 350°F for 25 to 30 minutes.