Harvest is the arc and the aggregate of food in the Valley. Suddenly the summer food spectrum is spread before you. Even with a blight on tomatoes and potatoes (and a very bad season for tobacco leaves due to wetness, lack of sun and cool temperatures), we are rich in food that goes beyond traditional fall fare. Extended growing initiatives such as moving hoop houses are getting some produce?out later than the three months of summer.
The ancient tradition of making a big fire and dancing to a full moon continues in the Valley. In New York at a relatively new farm to table establishment, they are just getting the hang of the harvest. At the Tarrytown-based Stone Barns, over 2,500 city types showed up to get a little taste of farm life in early October. My friend, chef Donna Fisher, and I went to check it out and enter the pie bake-off. We got there early as hordes of people jumped off the train and into taxi cabs to check out the harvest at this combination of a non-profit farm and Blue Hill, a for-profit restaurant.
It was the usual harvest fest except bigger and more dramatic. Not just one but many pigs were being roasted over spits and there was a demonstration of butchering and evisceration. Kids squealed and parents pleaded for just one shred of crispy fat. Dress was farmer chic. One woman wore Chanel rain boots over her jeans and her girls sported black muck boots. Food vendors from the City sold scones and croissants and pulled pork sandwiches from the sacrificial pigs were going fast.
There were gardening workshops and lectures. In Covered Barn B, chef/owner Dan Barber held forth on the superiority of New England root vegetables. "The cold weather makes beets something amazing in winter. To stay warm, the plant turns its own starch into sugar… such sweetness! You only get this in New England and we never say anything about it! All the plants in California do is have sex over and over again."
The menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns consists of a list of food that is in season, most of it grown on the farm, and many courses are served. Such items as house-made ricotta, tomato-flavored salt, lardo, tomato water cubes with okra flour with an okra floret as garnish, lardo on slate, chicken hearts on a stick and other novelties arrive at the table with extensive introductions. It is not cheap, but it is not average, either. When is the last time you had marrow on the thigh bone of a deer with a tiny lineup of fish eggs on top?
Barber shared his roasted root vegetable technique for Jerusalem artichokes.? "Get the moisture out of the J-chokes first in a fry pan on top of the stove with olive oil and garlic," he said. "Then blast them in the oven at at least 450, or as much as your oven can take." At the end of his roasting demonstration, he told the crowd that he believed the rutabaga is going to be "very, very big" this fall.
Chef Donna didn't win the pie bake-off. She got third place although her pie was perfection, with local MacIntosh apples and a butter crust. The winner's entry was a recipe from Cordon Bleu and the crust was pate brisee—about as American as a Peugeot.
In the Valley, food fairs continue to be very big, beginning with the Tomato Festival in August, the Garlic Festival, myriad town fairs and of course the Big E, an agricultural extravaganza complete with the Craz-E burger, 1,500 calories of bacon, cheese, beef and a glazed donut. The donut acts as a bun. (The Big E Craz-E made national news. Isn't it bad enough that legislators are promoting the Fluffernutter as the state sandwich?)
At the Garlic Festival, I ran into a forager who was holding a plastic bag with what looked like a massive brain inside it. It was a healthy haul of "chicken of the woods" (Laetiporus sulphureus), a mushroom typically found on rotted tree stumps in the forest.? The forager and I were standing at the top of the hill taking in the spectacle that is Garlic Fest. The aroma of fried sausage mingled in the air with the scent of roasted coffee beans. We exchanged pleasantries and, as usual, his behavior was somewhat furtive. He stopped talking and looked to his right and then to his left. When the coast was clear, he reached into the bag and handed over a substantial chunk of the mushroom.
I couldn't believe my luck. Chicken of the woods is not easy to come by. Strange things happen at Garlic Fest, what with the music on solar-powered acoustical systems, belly dancing, a riot of exotic foods and fairway spectacles such as Apollo, the guy who grows figs and has arms that seem as though they can squeeze sap right out of a tree.
I examined my gift through the filmy plastic he offered and the forager whispered a recipe. "My stepdaughter makes chicken fingers by breading and deep-frying the mushroom. This part," he said, pointing to the stem of the mushroom, "acts like a little handle." He recommended that I eat the mushroom soon. "Today is best," he said. I went home and tried his stepdaughter's recipe, and it was nothing short of a revelation. Essentially this mushroom, in the guise of fast food, becomes a protein with the flavor of lobster but none of the sacrifice.
The ultimate locavore lunch is one that is completely local and seasonal. Kale is in the garden and the eggs are from my friend's boyfriend's house in Belchertown. The problem with chicken of the woods mushroom fries is provenance.? Not only is their availability limited to late summer and early autumn, but unless you are a skilled forager, the best shot you have at getting the fungus is to go to the farmers' market in Northampton behind Thornes on a Wednesday and ask for Paul. If he is there, he might sell them to you—if he has them.
Dino Kale Sunny Side Up With Mushroom Fries
5 leaves dino kale
1 farm egg
1 head (size of your brain) of chicken of the woods fungus sliced lengthwise into ?-inch strips
Julienne kale by rolling it up and slicing it to ribbons. Sear in olive oil or butter till crisp but not dark brown. Remove and replace with egg.
Fry egg until white is cooked through. Remove egg from pan and melt 2 tablespoons butter. Fry up the fungus fingers until they are somewhat softened and very slightly browned.
Create a little nest of kale and top with fried egg. Arrange fungus next to the kale. Enjoy with homemade ketchup (if desired)."