Coming Home to an Organic Dinner

Chef Maggie Kelly from the downtown restaurant Hot Locust encapsulated two distinct yet undeniable impressions at the second installment of the Missouri Chef’s Collaborative dinners. The first was when she remarked that cooking with the organic produce and farm fresh eggs took her back to her childhood home - a multi-acre organic farm in Catalwassa, Missouri that fully sustained a family of eleven. The second was when she said that "healthful, simple cooking is not hippie-chick-bohemian food anymore". Check your tie-dyes and love beads at the door, we’re not in Haight/Ashberry anymore.

The dinner commenced with a plethora of Mediterranean Mezze Platters which consisted of Rosemary Skewered Cherry Tomatoes, succulent Fried Baby Squash served with a tangy Oregano Lemon Sauce, Grilled Radicchio packets with a sweet Balsamic Drizzle, Grilled Black Olive Ciabatta, Chickpea Humus, Baby New Potatoes filled with freshly made Goat Cheese, Foccacia Pizza topped with Chantarelles and Raisins and finally, according to the words of Chef Kelly: "everything else Brett and Keith sent me either roasted, grilled or served raw, all with Tzatziki and Aioli." This menu was definitely more along the lines of serious gastronomy versus commune food.

The previously mentioned Brett and Keith are Brett Palmier and Keith Biver, the sponsors of the evening’s meal, of Biver Farms in Edwardsville, Illinois [618.656.9082] (the evening was also sponsored by Companion Bread, which donated all the wonderful breads, and Millard Cohen who generously donated the wine - a 1998 Premium Blend from Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, MO). Brett and Keith's friendship began when they were scrappy young kindergartners, a little over twenty years ago (you do the math). The idea to begin the business started as a casual conversation between friends trying to figure out what to do with their lives and culminated when they took over Keith’s father’s seventeen acre farm - which had been farmed organically for over twenty years. The rest, as they say, is history.

Brett and Keith currently utilize four of the tillable seventeen acres to produce roughly 50 different kinds of fruits and vegetables (with a split of 45 vegetables and five fruits) including five different varieties of unique potatoes. At five to eight tons per season - fennel, chard, Heirloom tomatoes, kale, squash, beets - you get the picture - the selection is incredible. They sell their phenomenal produce primarily to over sixty CSA families and also to local chefs, restauranteurs, and at the Edwardsville Flea Market. CSA is the acronym for Community Sponsored Agriculture - a venture in which households sign up for a year’s worth of produce from a farm, and the farm in turn delivers bags full of gloriously fresh and organic produce once a week during the growing season. It’s a wonderful way for local farmers and their neighbors to interact in a mutually beneficial way - one of the tenets of the Missouri Chef’s Collaborative.

Brett and Keith by the way, take the idea of a "hands on venture" as seriously as Einstein did Relativity in that they are the sole employees of the entire enterprise, doing everything from planting, to watering, to picking the little annoying bugs off the leaves, to harvesting to marketing. One thing they don’t do is clean up after a harvest. For that they have Chicksaw, a.k.a. Chicken Tractor. I’m sure you’re getting a very interesting visual right about now, but you are way off base. This little known technique involves not a tractor at all, but a portable chicken coop, filled with chickens that is moved along the harvested plot in order for the chickens to eat bugs, remove debris - in essence work and compost the soil. It’s ingenuity at its best. No "chicken run" here.

Returning to our dinner at Hot Locust, after the appetizers we were served a sublime Chilled Red Lentil Carrot Soup seasoned with a hint of cardamom and topped with a delightfully crunchy Wheat Berry Salad accented with Fried Leeks and seasoned with sumac. The main course was a grilled Lamb Kabob served with a Warm Eggplant Salad, Garlic Natural Essence Sauce and rounded off with a delightful Herbed Sultana Pilaf. There was a vegetarian option that substituted the vegetarian white meat, i.e. tofu, for the lamb-- I am still sorry I did not get to taste the tofu option because it looked fabulous.

Chef Kelly's preparation of the food eloquently emphasized that the quality of the ingredients were key to the meal’s success. The pairing of Chef Kelly and Biver Farms was no accident. They met during a Missouri Chef’s Collaborative school program in which, according to Palmier, they were "trying to teach kids from suburbia that food is not grown in the grocery store." Some adults would surely benefit from such important information.

A good portion of the evening consisted of some enlightening information served up alongside the food. Julie and Kevin Brussell of Rainy Creek Farm, located thirty-five miles outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, are the driving force behind The Farm Gate which is an organization designed to help farmers develop sustainable and/or organic food systems. They both have a deep understanding about the science as well as the politics of organic farming and spend a significant amount of their time doing advocacy work on behalf of organic farming (when they’re not running their own farm that produces fabulous organic grains).

Finally, dessert: Lemon Verbena Créme Brulee with Fresh Local Berries and Missouri Black Walnut Brittle. Both were deliciously prepared by Pastry Chef Miriam Aquino. It was a bittersweet end to the evening because this was Chef Kelly’s final meal at Hot Locust. A tribute to her was paid in the form of the waitstaff and kitchen staff who volunteered their time to work the dinner. She is stepping out of the kitchen and in front of a camera, along with her twin sister Bridget Ries, to market the pilot for their cooking show Twice Baked which emphasizes healthful, simple cooking. Kelly said the show mirrors the kind of dinner she prepared that evening - meals that are wholesome as well as delicious. The goal is to enlighten people about the ecological benefits of organic and sustainable farming and how those benefits can be turned into gastronomic feats of brilliance.

The evening was a tremendous success for both the mind and the body - and evening where healthy, delicious ingredients were turned into an amazing meal in an enlightened atmosphere. The next Missouri Chef’s Collaborative dinner is on July 24th at The Crossing in Clayton (314.721.7375). Chuck those stereotypes out the window. Healthy food is delicious and does not require the involvement of macramé in any shape or form.