By Carol Mighton Haddix
The day was squinting-ly sunny, warm…delightful. But for one group of Dames and guests, the sensory input instead came through a computer screen. We were participating in a Virtual Farm Tour & Cooking Demo on Aug. 9 through the magic of Zoom. Dames Jeanne Nolan, Sarah Stegner, and Portia Belloc Lowndes led the tour and class. A different take on the farm-to-table trend, the event was open to the public, attracting 59 participants, and served as a fundraiser for Green City Market’s Edible Garden Project, which helps feed needy Chicagoans during the pandemic.
Portia kicked off the event by introducing Dame Mary Kay Gill, who gave an overview of Les Dames, and described our local Green Tables initiatives, which includes supporting the Edible Garden at Green City Market. Then we Zoomed straight into Sarah’s kitchen at her Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook. Earlier, participants had the opportunity to pick up prepped ingredients at Prairie Grass Café and cook along with Sara at home. She started with fresh, wild Alaskan cod fillets that she coated with egg, oat flour and bread crumbs before sauteeing.
“It’s all about being instinctual in the kitchen, not just following a recipe,” Sarah said. She fried the fish in clarified butter for added flavor. “Control the temperature in frying,” she cautioned; if the fish is browning too quickly, turn down the heat to give it time to cook through.”
We then zoomed to Jeanne Nolan at her Middlefork Farm in Northfield, where she runs The Organic Gardener, which helps Chicagoans set up and maintain produce gardens. She took us on a tour that included herbs (“I’m really liking the lemon verbena right now,” she said), edible flowers such as nasturtium, plus leeks, fennel, eggplant, corn, and many types of tomatoes (“my favorite is an orange cherry tomato called jaune flame.”)
Around the gardens, Jeanne has planted flowers to help fight insect invasions. “We call it our Border Patrol,” she laughed. The blackberries are coming in now, she showed us, but the orchard’s cherry trees are done for the season. Nearby, an alpaca grazed in a pasture, and the farm’s two cute goats, Chocolate and Olive, came out for a visit.
Kale from the farm starred in the next dish Sarah demonstrated: a wilted kale salad with cherry tomatoes, leeks, corn, and grated cheese that is tossed with a pungently good pecan/herb pesto. “This is the kind of dish that can change with the seasons,” Sarah said. “Use whichever greens, herbs and vegetables are in season.” (See recipe below.)
For the grand finale, Portia mixed up a cooling cucumber Mezcal cocktail, using one of Jeanne’s father’s products, La Luna Mezcal from Mexico. She made a sugar syrup with equal parts sugar and water, and sliced cucumbers, fresh ginger and mint. It’s easily stored in the fridge, she said, for up to a week. She then mixed two ounces of that syrup with two ounces Mezcal in a cocktail glass and topped it off with seltzer water and garnishes of lemon grass, lime and mint. After that colorful vision, we all were ready to Zoom to cocktail hour, cook up some kale — and toast our fabulous tour leaders!
Left: The finished dish, courtesy of Dame Stacey Ballis
Warm kale, leek, tomato, and corn salad with pesto
2 cups basil, parsley or a mix of herbs
1/2 cup toasted pecans
½ cup grated cheese, such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve or Parmesan
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons clarified butter or olive oil
2 cups torn kale
1 cup julienned leeks
Salt, pepper to taste
2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
½ cup fresh corn kernels
2 tablespoons grated cheese, such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve or Parmesan
1.For pesto, place herbs, pecans, cheese, oil, and pepper in food processor or blender. Process until chopped fine. Set aside.
2.For salad, heat olive oil in 10-12-inch sauté pan over medium high heat. Add kale; cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove kale to a bowl; set aside.
3.Add more olive oil to pan if needed. Add leeks; cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add tomatoes; cook 3-4 minutes. Stir in the corn, kale and pesto. Simmer over low heat until heated through. Sprinkle with cheese.