Sunday, September 27, 2015

A New Season and a New Start for the Chesapeake Kitchen

My apologies. I haven't been posting in a while because it has been a busy few months for me! In addition to running Gertrude's, I've been working with all the wonderful folks over at Johns Hopkins University Press on The 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking, which was released just last week.

Recently I was invited to bring some of the books, hot off the presses, over to the brand new Waverly Branch of the Pratt Libraries and give a little talk. So after my usual Saturday morning ritual of shopping and gabbing at the 32nd Street Farmers' Market, I headed across the street to the library. Here’s a semi-faithful transcript of my talk that morning…

It was during the winter, early 70s, that I left my hometown of Baltimore, loaded my upright piano and hauled it north to Provincetown, on the outermost tip of Cape Cod, planning to become a "Rock Star," a'la Elton John. Well, not much doing in the Rock Star World out on Cape Cod in the dead of wintertime I found out. But I did wind up filling in for a friend who broke his foot and couldn't work his shifts at a large restaurant there. The first task the chef gave me was to peel up a bowl of fresh garlic. Well, here I was, an Irish Catholic boy from Baltimore —never even saw garlic before! I cut myself eight times… and so began my career in the culinary world.

About a decade later, that career took me out west to California and eventually I took a leap and decided to open my own place. Of course the question was, "What will I DO?” The obvious choice would have been a California nouvelle kinda thing, all the rage just then.

But one day it just came to me. I could see my grandmother Gertie—she would often bring me along to St. Ann's Church in Waverly when they held their "Business Men's Luncheons." I remembered her and all the other volunteer church ladies working so hard. I loved helping out there, everyone laughing and joking around. We'd be shucking bushels of corn, stringing beans, and I loved the sense of camaraderie, the sense of community there.  Suddenly I knew I had to do the kind of food that I loved, the food of my home.

So I opened a place out there and called it "Gertie's Chesapeake Bay Café," quite an anomaly for Berkeley, California in 1983, I'll tell ya! But it was a huge hit. I had fresh stuff flown in almost everyday from Maryland. I had the blue crabs, the oysters—after a couple years of doing those airport runs my poor car smelled really bad.

A couple years later, a regular customer who worked with Aris Books, a West Coast publishing house that at that time specifically published cookbooks, was keeping after me to do a book. He kept saying, "There are no cookbooks on Chesapeake cuisine. You should be the one to write one."  And finally, I took a leave of absence from the Café and I drove my little (smelly) Volkswagen bug across the country and for an entire year I traveled the Chesapeake, 200 miles north-to-south. What an inspiring and marvelous time it was. I met the most fascinating people from every imaginable walk of life. I worked hard to capture not only the flavor of the food but also importantly, the flavor of the people of the Chesapeake region, to bring the generous, charming, colorful, and often humorous personalities of the people who contributed to my book to life in its pages. A lot of folks have told me I succeeded, and I sure hope I did.

When Chesapeake Bay Cooking was published I was still living in Berkeley, California, although I was flying back and forth to Baltimore for what seemed like every other week—and it wasn't long before that got real old. So I came back home, to stay—and the rest, as they say, is history, and Gertie's Chesapeake Bay Café grew up to become Gertrude's at the BMA.

Twenty five years ago, although it was gaining some ground out in California, here in the east the idea of "eating local/eating in season/shopping local" wasn't really showing up on most folks radar, but honestly, for me, it was just the way we always ate at my house. At lot of my relatives were farmers. Many still are in Baltimore and Harford Counties. I kinda grew up in a world where I just thought that's the way you eat.  You grow it and you eat it.

My grandmother used to "put up" all kinds of things when they came into season. She even had a root cellar in her row home. So we did have wonderful food all winter, but the anticipation for some of the spring delicacies, such as rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries would mount as spring approached. The season for most of these foods didn't last a long time. We couldn't have everything whenever we wanted, so we built up a real appreciation for things when we did have them.

This is the way folks always ate—with deep appreciation for foods at their best, fresh and in their season. I believe we've lost so much as global corporations and industrial agriculture have taken over. This hasn't been an entirely good thing—for the environment, for our local economies, for our personal health or simply for our enjoyment of good food.

Things are changing. In fact, they have changed. When I opened Gertrude's a professional chef couldn't buy anything much that was local. The big suppliers just didn't have it, didn't quite know what you meant when you asked for it. I was very fortunate that the 32nd Street/Waverly Farmers Market was open all year round and was just a few blocks away. I was able to make such good, lasting friendships, face-to-face, with many local producers and food artisans right here in my own neighborhood.

I love good food. I love making good food that makes people happy. Being a chef can be a taxing business, but it's exciting. In the kitchen you're nervous and you're rushing and then all the people come in and everyone is smiling. That's what food does. It brings us all together around our common table in joyful community. And, you know, at this point in life, I can look back and see that being a chef and cookbook author has been a lot more fun than being a rock star could ever have been. I'll probably live longer too!

On that note, with a thought to the season, here's a simple recipe from the 25th Anniversary edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields for all those apples we have in such abundance this time of the year. Good old fashioned "puttin' up," as Gertie would say.

Apple Butter

It may come as some surprise that there is actually no butter in apple butter. The name refers to the smooth consistency of the finished product. A spicy spread made by slowly simmering apples with spices and apple cider, apple butter has been a staple in Chesapeake kitchens for generations. It is a perfect companion to breakfast rolls or warm, buttered toast.

Makes about 5 pint jars
5 pounds tart apples (about 16 medium apples), such as Granny Smith or Stayman
2 cups apple cider
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
¼ cup apple cider vinegar

Cut the apples into quarters. It is not necessary to peel or core them. Place the apples in a heavy-bottomed pot. Pour in the apple cider and enough water to come about halfway up the apples. Cook until the apples are very soft. Press the mixture through a sieve or food mill and return to the pot.

Add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and vinegar. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until thick and smooth, about 10 minutes.

Transfer to pint or half-pint containers and fill to 1/2 inch of the top. Immediately seal the lids and process for 10 minutes according to Hot-WaterBath Procedure.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2015 - Happy New Year!

It's that time of year again. Yep, you know, the New Year's resolutions. I'm going to the gym everyday, I'll swim, jog, bike -and possibly meditate, regularly. I am going to totally reorganize my life and in my spare time learn how to speak three foreign languages fluently -and take that wood working class which should help me in my several planned volunteer efforts. Did I mention a knitting class?

If any of this sounds familiar -or if you've found medication to control this kind of obsession, you may realize that these frenetic, multi-faceted types of resolutions generally go down in flames, or just get slowly washed away in the tides of a busy year. After quite a number of decades with broken resolutions under my belt I came to the awareness that I need to focus on one thing (or one resolution) at a time.

For me 2015 is going to be the year of the Baltimore/Chesapeake Locavore. Being a chef and a restaurant owner, I think a lot about food: what we eat, how we eat, where we eat and where the food we eat comes from. The more I read and hear about all sorts of food-borne illnesses, the poor quality of much of the food produced by our centralized-industrial food system, and diseases resulting from an “affluenza diet”, the more firmly I believe the only answer lies in rebuilding our own local food supply and local food economy. 

So my resolution involves setting myself up to live and eat in a more local manner. I'm trying to keep it simple - and it's just a small start - but I came up with three steps for myself.

1 - Shop regularly at my farmers' market or local independent grocer. This helps keep farmers in business and precious land out of development. Recent studies have found that locally grown food, eaten in season, is better for our health - and the health of our community. The money stays local and like Dolly Levi said in the play Hello Dolly, "Money is like manure... it does no good unless you spread it around and encourage things [like small farmers] to grow." It helps to put together a flexible menu plan and a flexible shopping list before I head off to the market. I can make changes along the way depending on availability, but I do not get overwhelmed at the market with the many choices I encounter.

2 - Have a regular shared common table meal. I've been thinking about my mom and grandmother Gertie, and how there was always a hot meal on the table where family, extended family and friends would meet for good local food and good company. Lately I find myself with too little time spent around a common table with friends and conviviality. It only makes sense that if I am going to go to the farmer's market to gather local food to cook a meal, it should be for a meal shared with others. I'll start off with once a week and see where I go from there. 

3 - Plan to grow at least three edible items this coming growing season. If I'm going to dive into this locavore lifestyle I believe it is important to grow some of my own. And I don't need a lot of land. It could be a window box, a five-gallon bucket, or a small backyard plot. You can grow just about anywhere. All you really need is a little sunlight, some dirt and some water! Just some herbs, cherry tomatoes, and pole beans grown on the balcony is a fine start. For me, watching plants grow is witnessing the awesome miracle of nature up close. It slows me down a bit and reminds me where, and who, I am in the big scheme of things.

So nothing earth shattering this year... Just a little resolution to depend on my local farmers for substance, and to spend my time sharing locavore delicacies with others. Wish me luck! 

- And a Happy Locavore New Year to you all!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Full Quiver Farm in Hampton Roads

Next stop on the New Chesapeake Kitchen tour was to Suffolk, Virginia to Full Quiver Farm where Bonnie North and I met farmers Scott and Alison Wilson. The Wilsons are part of a new breed of Chesapeake farmers. They did not inherit the farm from a long line of ancestral farmers, or spend their formative years in 4-H, but rather, had very successful careers in the high-tech world, he as a web designer and she as a graphic artist, skills that have been instrumental in their farm business, but more about that later.

Photo courtesy of Full Quiver Farm
The Wilsons were leading very busy lives in the world of business while at the same time starting a family of their own. As their first four children were growing up Scott & Alison were constantly concerned with the various health (or maybe un-health) conditions the kids were experiencing, from persistent earaches to asthma.

As they read and learned more about how our (industrial) food was grown and raised all the signs pointed to food as an integral part in their children’s illnesses. What’s a high-tech couple to do? Well, Scott & Alison made a series of life-altering decisions that resulted the now well-known and very successful Full Quiver Farm.

In doing so they laid out a vision and clearly defined their goals:
  1. Begin to build a family business where all children from the young to the old can be involved in real, meaningful work. Give children more access to the outdoors and large open spaces for plenty of exercise, fresh air, and sunshine.
  2. Eat healthier and more responsibly by growing most of our own food. Raise our own vegetables and meat in a natural and environmentally friendly way.
  3. Provide fresh meat and vegetables to health conscious consumers, who are looking for a locally and naturally grown alternative to the conventional fair found at the grocery store.
In 2003 they moved out of the suburbs to a ranch home on 25 acres in Suffolk, Virginia and started trying their hands at raising free-range poultry according to Joel Salatin's methods. Utilizing the skills they brought with them Alison and Scott were well poised to launch a sound marketing plan. Alison created attractive, professional brochures and offered to give free talks at local libraries educating folks on the importance of healthier eating and "re-learning how to cook." She promotes utilizing what we often think of as "low end cuts" of meats by crock pot and slow-cooking methods that bring the highest nutrition for the price point: "If you want to eat organic and healthy you will need to see that chicken a little differently."

Their farming philosophy focuses upon several key points:

Photo courtesy of Full Quiver Farm
  • Grown locally with integrity, not diesel trucked halfway across the country
  • Eat fresh green pasture, nothing green grows in a metal building
  • Fresh feed, ground and mixed locally, not old stale feed that sits and becomes rancid
  • Grown outdoors in the sunshine, not in big metal buildings where tons of manure reeks with ammonia fumes... unhealthy
  • You get to talk to and have a relationship with the farmer/steward that produces your food... Not just have blind faith that the stuff in the cellophane package in the supermarket is OK to eat
  • Our farm enhances the environment. Compost and manure nourishes our pastures and gardens to help grow organic vegetables. We don't stink up the air and pollute the water with giant manure lagoons
  • Our farm enhances people, providing a means to raise healthy, faithful and responsible children for our next generation
  • We firmly believe that our health depends on the health and quality of life of the food we eat.
Healthy, happy animals = healthy happy humans!

Within 2 years the Wilsons had added dairy and beef cattle, and pork. By 2007, a mere 4 years on the farm, the operation had proven so successful that both Scott and Alison left their careers completely behind to devote all their energy and time to Full Quiver and to raising their children to be healthy in both body and spirit.

Full Quiver sells at local farmers' markets and operates a Buying Club through which customers can pre-order and pick up from a number of locations in the area. They offer beef, which Alison warns usually sells out immediately when they get it back from the butcher, pork, including a variety of homemade sausages, fresh brown eggs, pastured chicken and turkeys.

There are quite a number of folks in our Chesapeake region starting out in small-scale production of produce and animal products, but the Wilson’s had the jump on some of the others due to their backgrounds in the high-tech world. Blending old world, traditional farming techniques with the ability to communicate with their greater community via web-based sales and marketing, have helped make Scott and Alison’s operation so very successful in a relatively short period of time.

From Alison: Here is a recipe from my mother’s mother that was passed down to me and my family enjoys. We make it with our own chickens, homemade chicken broth and homemade butter and milk from our cows.

Many thanks to Bonnie North for her research and help with this blog post.

Until next time!

- John

Mima’s Original Chicken Pie Recipe

Serves 4 to 5

Make a sauce out of the following:
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 ¾ cups chicken broth
2/3 cups whole milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups cooked chicken, cut into 1-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a saucepan, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and continue cooking over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 3 minutes. Do not brown the flour.

Off the heat, whisk in the chicken broth and whole milk. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer, and continue cooking for about 5 minutes. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Add the cooked chicken to the pot pie sauce. Set mixture aside to cool while making the crust.

Place the pot-pie filling in a long, buttered casserole and cover with the following crust (no thicker than ¼ inch).

Pot Pie Crust

1 ½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
About a ½ cup of milk

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and work into the flour with your fingertips or pastry cutter, until incorporated. Stir in the milk, a little at a time, until a soft dough is formed. Do not over work the dough, or you will have a tough crust.

On a floured board, roll out the dough and place it over the filling in the casserole pan. Make a few slits in the crust with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape while baking.

Bake the casserole for 30 to 35, or until crust is nicely browned.