the Power of Food 2 – and beets, and kale, and pork belly

I arrived at the final Charlottesville City Market at 8 AM and pulled into a miracle:  a convenient, legal parking space!  Ordinarily this would be a great omen, but on October 24 2008 it merely indicated the anticlimactic finish to a great farming, market, and eating season in Charlottesville.  The chilly rain was heavy at times, and nearly half of the vendors had bowed out of this last market day (number 30 of 30).  Unfortunately my intent this particular morning was to purchase all of the produce necessary for a cooking class for 40 people, and so I dutifully hauled out my reusable bags and Coca Cola crate (surprisingly useful!) and headed around the stalls.  Rather than shopping for a specific menu, my plan is always to see what’s available and then come up with a menu that highlights seasonal, local produce.

At Double H I loaded a bag with baby bok choy, sufficiently beaded with rainwater that it required some shaking and wringing out before loading into the bag.  I bought the last chicken (‘A whopper’ said Richard, ‘seventeen dollars!’).  So much the better for my purposes – we would be making chicken, fennel and barley soup as a means to illustrate stretching meat dollars, the healthfulness of homemade broths, and easy integration of whole grains into ‘familiar’ dishes.  I thanked Richard for the beautiful produce (Jean was to join him a bit later) and he in turn thanked me for my support throughout the year.  Then he turned and told one of his regular customers to call him if she would like an order delivered with his once-weekly wholesale orders on Thursdays — a good option for those of us worried about running out of sausage!

Next I bought heirloom kale from Appalachia Star, and mixed in a few bright purple mustard greens.  Then, looking around, I decided to base the rest of the menu on items from Roundabout that I could have delivered to my house and to hope for some interesting items to be available the following day at New Branch Farm after the class’s farm tour.

What class?  ‘The Power of Food:  Nutrition, Food Policy and Local Food’, offered through the UVa School of Continuing and Professional Studies as a collaborative effort between Susan Del Gobbo, Lynda Fanning and myself.  As class coordinator, I had set out the syllabus to begin with nutrition and food policy, and to end with the ‘antidote’ of local food – in the classroom, on a farm, and in the kitchen.  Our intent in teaching the class had been to empower people to be more active and aware of food choices and their impact, both locally and nationally; we wanted to provide tools and resources for individuals to serve as their own educators and advocates, whether that meant cooking at home or starting a garden or writing to policy makers.  So on the chilly, rainy market morning I had completed the second of my classroom lectures, was preparing to lead the class to New Branch Farm the following day (let’s hope this weather clears!) and, for a grand finale, taking the class into a real kitchen to prepare an all-local menu.

Bob Bressan, Culinary Arts Instructor at CATEC (and student) had offered his commercial-kitchen classroom as the site for our final class – Cooking and Eating Local Food.  In comparison to my vision (or nightmare?) of cooking on a hot plate in the Darden classroom, this seemed like the big leagues and an opportunity to do some real cooking.  I stopped by a few weeks prior to the end of the class just to see the facility, and realized not only that I had died and gone to cooking class heaven, but also that CATEC is a tremendous community resource that offers adult education, career training, and cooking classes in conjunction with Charlottesville Parks and Recreation.

After receiving my Roundabout delivery, I sat down to craft the menu.  I had already decided on chicken soup with fennel and barley; I knew that cooking kale would be a good activity for a group heading into the coldest part of the year, when kale is often the only green with enough integrity to stand through the winter.  Megan also offered escarole, a flat Italian lettuce that would pair beautifully with pears or apples and local chestnuts. A student suggested preparing a multi-vegetable dish that had been covered in the C’ville Weekly just a week before.  Beets materialized on my doorstep, and of course I pre-ordered a newly-created boule from Albemarle Baking Company featuring Vintage Virginia Apples and apple cider (available Wednesdays only!).  While we were lacking the traditional ‘entree’, the class had been enthusiastic about a vegetable-centric meal given what we had learned about the resource intensive production of most types of meat.

A menu that seemed initially to be limited by the season ended up being too ambitious – the class went over our time allotment by 45 minutes!  We prepared oven-roasted beets (peeled, then dropped into homemade apple cider vinegar and macerated onions, then seasoned with dill), kale two ways (simmered with pork belly, vinegar, and cannelini beans, and lightly sauteed with garlic, clarified butter, and resurrected grapes); chicken, fennel and barley soup; escarole salad with mystery ‘asian’ pears from New Branch Farm and ‘tooth cracker’ candied local chestnuts and honey vinaigrette; bok choy sauteed with olive oil (oh so delicious and so simple); and an Autumn Vegetable Medley that didn’t quite have time to come together – an oversight on my part.

The runaway hit of the evening was the roasted beet dish – a thoughtful student reminded me to tell those folks new to beet-eating that they would likely get a surprise on their next trip to the bathroom (if you don’t know what I mean, try eating some beets and you’ll see).  While nobody broke a tooth on the chestnuts (to my knowledge, at least) the slightly bitter chicory salad with sweet dressing, crunchy nuts, and pears was my personal favorite, especially crafted as it was out of a famous but locally rare Italian ingredient (ciccoria), an item given to my by Brett and April of Horse and Buggy Produce (local chestnuts, which I prefer raw), and a scavenged item (the pears from New Branch Farm, which Stephanie was reluctant to even charge money for!).  Bleu cheese would have fit right in…

I left CATEC slightly footsore but light of heart; many students had stayed late to eat, clean up, and continue talking about food.  The most enthusiastic were kind enough to share their satisfaction with me.  I felt that all the uncertainty in conceiving and building the class, researching my segments, and hustling for local ingredients was more than worth it.  Once again I feel fortunate to am able to observe the moment of connection – when people are able to taste simple, fresh local food that is lovingly prepared, their eyes light up and they smile even as they chew.  No amount of academic approach, nor empirical example, can equal simply putting the food in someone’s mouth and smiling with them.

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~ by a local notion on January 26, 2009.

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