Comfort Food from the Best Local Ingredient

By Chef Joseph Meicher, The Local Lounge

Growing up, I have always loved cooking. I worked in Madison at the University Club. When I moved up to Eau Claire in 2007 to attend business school at UWEC, I took a job at Mona Lisa’s.  After graduating, I spent one month in sales and quickly returned to the kitchen at Mona Lisa’s.  I worked through every station there and wanted to continue learning and advancing my career. I went in October of 2012 to work in Tuscany at Podere il Casale, an agriturismo outside of Montepulciano. While working on the farm, I had the opportunity to cook in their restaurant daily. We prepared a different menu every day based on what was in our garden, freezer, larder, etc. In addition to cooking, I was lucky enough to harvest grapes for their wines, olives for their oil, make incredible goats’ and sheep’s milk cheeses, take sheep to pasture along with some dogs, and take the goats into the forest to forage every evening. It was an awesome experience that taught me so much about local food and taking pride in the products that are from one’s region.

The people I worked with were all incredibly passionate about food. They cared deeply about every detail that went into making a dish. One dish in particular that really got people fired up was a marinated eggplant dish. There were only four ingredients, eggplant, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt; however, the method of preparing the dish seemed to be contested every day. Enis, the chef, insisted that the eggplant should be salted, pressed, grilled (with no oil), then drizzled with a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil. The owner of the farm, Ulisse, was certain that the best way to prepare the dish was to oil and salt the eggplant, grill them immediately, then as they came off the grill, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice on each slice followed by a bit of olive oil. Both versions were absolutely wonderful; the passion they had for their method was memorable and stuck with me. I ended up preparing the dish differently every day based on who I thought might walk into the kitchen. If Ulisse was making cheese, I would mix the oil and lemon juice. If Enis was at the market, I would grill the eggplant right away and finish with the lemon juice first then the olive oil. It was inspiring to work with people that cared so much about food, particularly the foods and dishes specific to their area in Tuscany.

The Local Lounge has been a phenomenal opportunity.  I have been lucky enough to collaborate with a very talented and passionate staff to construct our menu.  It is really exciting to be surrounded by like minded cooks that are always striving to figure out the best way to showcase our local ingredients.  We have a phenomenal kitchen staff ready to serve some really awesome food that will be familiar and comforting but executed at a level you would find in Minneapolis or Madison with the best ingredients available in the Chippewa Valley.Using local ingredients is common sense if you are sincerely trying to cook good food. Our goal is simply to show off the best ingredients to our guests in a way that is familiar and not pretentious. We will be using many local farmers throughout the growing season and preserving as many ingredients as possible so that we can continue to serve locally sourced foods all year long.

We will measure success in the restaurant not only monetarily, but also by how much we can support local farmers and by how much we can give back to our community. Our goal is to be a profitable restaurant that plays an integral role in helping sustain local farms as well as getting involved with non-profit work, local charities,and other organizations that do good for the community.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to cook alongside such a talented and passionate group for the Eat Local Challenge. It is a really exciting time for the Eau Claire restaurant scene. I think the meal will be a great chance to show off some of the awesome ingredients and the awesome talent available to us in the Chippewa Valley.

Locally Laid —Eggs, That Is! A Chat with Lucie Amundsen

Duluth-area writer and co-chicken farmer Lucie B. Amundsen is the author of Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm from Scratch (Avery, 2016). She will appear at the Chippewa Valley Book Fest Saturday, October 15, 2016, at 3:30 p.m. in the Eau Claire Room,  L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. She has a masters of fine arts in writing from Hamline University, has written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and has served as an editor at Reader’s Digest Association.

The book recounts the adventure she and her husband began when they decided to create a large-scale, pasture-raised egg farm—with no previous experience! In November she’ll be speaking as a William J. Clinton Guest Lecturer at the School of Public Policy in Little Rock about Middle Agriculture, which, she says is “quite an honor for a reluctant chicken farmer.” The book recently won the Midwest Choice Award for Nonfiction.

Recently we spoke with Amundsen about the adventure and the book.

Why did you decide to write the memoir? It started as a blog, which honestly I started as part diary/part mental health exercise. I found that if I was writing out everything that was going on (read going wrong) at the farm, I wasn’t grinding my teeth quite so hard. Then I needed a subject for my book-length thesis project for my masters of fine arts in writing from Hamline University in St. Paul. Oddly, I began writing other topics, but found myself drawn to writing the blog. Then it hit me that the blog could be adapted to a book. Also, I think of the book as narrative nonfiction—like if a memoir and a popular nonfiction had a bab. There’s a tremendous amount of facts and research in there, and my hope is that the personal, funny story will propel people who didn’t know they cared about the food system into reading a book about it. I’m tricky that way.

All the chickens are named Lola, short for Locally Laid. Are all your chickens of the same type? What type(s) do you have? We have had different breeds over the years—mostly Rhode Island Reds, Bovans Brown, and Red Stars. They’re all hearty northern girls, good layers with gentle personalities.

You have said that in this venture you are “championing agriculture of the middle,” saying in an Open Letter to the Man Offended by Locally Laid (http://locallylaid.com/open-letter-to-the-man-offended-by-locally-laid/), that Middle Agriculture is “the most stressed, least understood agricultural segment in America. Mid-sized farms, like awkward teens, don’t fit in anywhere. They tend to be too large to sell all they produce directly to the public (think farmer’s market or CSA) and way too small to romp with the big dogs of commodity markets. As such, there are less of us mid-level producers every day. Between 1997–2012 the number of these types of operations has declined by 18%. That’s over 130,000 farms that have been shut, barn doors closed, tumbleweeds cued.” You wrote that when this happens, it affects all the local and regional agriculture-related industries. This is really the crux of the farm for me. The idea is that when a business sources locally — farmers in our region grow our Non-GMO corn, then we use the local feed mill to grind and store our feed, buy our supplies from the local farm store, handle our own processing, and hire our neighbors to wash eggs, and then use a local distributor to sell locally — then all that economic vitality swirls around the community and we’re all better for it.One of our partner farmers who had been renting his land forever was able, on the strength of his Locally Laid contract, to buy his farm. It gives me goose bumps.

How much training or education would someone need to do what you and your husband have done? I think of my book as farm contraception. If someone reads the book and still wants to go into farming, then they should find a farmer to have a mentor relationship with for at least a year. Also, understanding of accounting and marketing would be really useful, too. Farmers now can’t just excel at the craft of agriculture, they also must understand branding.

Why, in your mind, is growing and selling/buying locally better (assuming you think so)?

There’s everything I said above, but also I talk about food miles in the book. Here is a bit on that from page 108. “It’s a form of culinary accounting, adding up all the travel on long-haul trucks and plane hops a product takes to get from farm field to processing plant to your town. The Worldwatch Institute ran the numbers and figures that most things we pick up from the grocery store travel between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before they slap down on our kitchen counters. And that seemed like an awful big side of diesel with our breakfast. I started writing about it.”

Are local organic eggs more nutritious? Do they tend to be more expensive than Big Ag eggs? It had been our intention to be organic certified, but then we learned a lot.Organic eggs don’t feel local to me as most of the organic animal feed in this country comes from China and India. Our government subsidizes commercial corn so heavily, it makes business sense to export our commercial grain and import organic. Of course, I’m not sure how organic a crop can be from some of the most polluted countries on earth.

However having my chickens outside on ROTATED pasture (cage-free birds don’t really go outside, but when they do it’s often on a concrete slab or on denuded pasture) adds nutrients to their diets. All that clover, flowers, grasses, seeds,bugs, and hapless frogs makes for better eggs—tastier and also with more yolk integrity. A USDA-funded study and others have found that pasture-raised eggs have less fat, less cholesterol, more beta-carotene, omega 3s, vitamin A, etc.

It makes sense to me that when I exercise and eat salad, I’m healthy. Same for the birds.

What has been the most challenging aspect to your chicken-raising endeavor? It’s hard to say one thing. The book really is a giant pratfall into our ag experience, but because we’re not so small that we can procure all our chickens at say Dan’s Feed Bin (a local feed store in Superior) and we’re not ordering the 30,000 pullet minimum from a big hatchery, getting lines of supply going as a mid-sized farm was very difficult.

What has been the greatest reward? The greatest reward has been watching some of our partner farms (farmers who raised eggs to our brand standard, we buy them and do all the distribution and marketing) have a materially better life. Like I said, one bought his farm. Another insulated his house. That’s tangible stuff.

In the book, I find ways to take big questions like “Why is a food system broken?” and find light, amusing ways to answer them. At a reading, I had a woman come up to have her book signed, and I could tell she had something important on her mind. This is a paraphrase of what she said, “In the 1980s my parents lost our farm, and I thought it was because we were bad at business. But then I read your book, and I see it had nothing to do with that. That the whole deck was stacked against us. And now…I see things differently.”  This might be the most rewarding thing that happened about the book for me.

We are hosting the annual Eat Local Challenge, where local chefs seeking to use local, organic products create a wonderful meal. Have you and your eggs participated in any events like that? If so, why do you think they are important?

We’ve been involved with the statewide project Minnesota Cooks. I think events like these are good for consumer education and are usually a lot of fun.

Happy Goats, Great Cheese

This June, Bifrost Farms Creamery, near Boyceville, Wisconsin, became the only farmstead goat cheese micro-creamery in Western Wisconsin. Licensed Cheesemaker Meg Wittenmyer opened Bifrost Farms with the goal of providing a local source of fresh goat milk products. Wittenmyer’s vision is to be a key part of building a vibrant, sustainably active food community in Dunn County and surrounding areas.

A farmstead creamery differs from the typical cheese factory of Wisconsin in that the goats are raised, milk is produced, and cheese made all right on the farm. Meg takes pride in her small herd of Mini-Nubians who produce sweet, high-butterfat milk, perfect for cheesemaking. Current products available through Bifrost Farms are all non-GMO and use only vegetable rennet. They include plain and flavored Chèvre, a Feta-style cheese called Salzkäse, Cajeta (goat milk caramel sauce), and Meg’s unique yogurt cheese made in both sweet and savory flavors,such as Matcha Green Tea and Tzatziki.

Bifrost Farms goats are treated humanely and naturally, with no vaccines or traditional wormers. They are also proud of their “no-kill” dairy label and will soon be Animal Welfare Approved. Although not certified organic, they use organic practices in their goat dairy. Wittenmyer says, “We maintain that the natural path is the most efficient and safest way to treat animals. With a strong immune system and healthy diet and supplementation (all derived from natural means, not chemical) when necessary, our goats thrive and in return, provide us with the means to create wonderful goat milk products. We are building our herd from some of the best bloodlines in the country and hope to have kids available soon to pass on their amazing genetics.”

Goat milk is the basis for creating the special products Bifrost offers.  “The first thing you need to realize is that goat milk is NOT cow milk,” Meg notes. “They both come from the teat of a hoofed animal, but as far as we’re concerned that’s where the comparison ends. Goat milk is fragile. Goat milk must be handled carefully, stirred slowly, and not overworked. The reason has to do with the tiny fat globules that make up goat milk, and by the way, that is what also makes it more digestible. If goat milk is treated roughly, the final product will be tough and not at all what you intended.”

Future plans include farm tours and weekend cheese making and soap making workshops, as well as adding goat milk gelato to the line-up of products. For more information about Bifrost Farms Creamery and its products, visit their website at www.bifrostfarm.com. Bifrost Farms products are currently available at the Menomonie Market Food Co-Op, the Menomonie Saturday morning farmers market, Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire, or at the farm. Please call the farm at 715-643-2208  before visiting.

Work Worth Doing, Beer Worth Brewing: The Brewing Projekt Takes Root in the Valley

President William Glass and brewer Eric Rykal are excited to be able to finally concentrate on actually making beer, after a rough couple of years struggling to get federal and state applications to brew approved. The Brewing Projekt opened its taproom, which seats roughly fifty people, in April of 2015. They also give tours! Will and Eric spoke with us recently.

What is your background as a brewer? Eric: I began home brewing immediately when I was of age to drink. What I had hoped would be an occasional hobby quickly grew into an intense obsession. With my background in biology, and a few years of brewing at home under my belt, I was able to find an apprenticeship at a commercial production brewery that quickly turned into my first full-time brewing job. After brewing there for nearly five years, I was fortunate enough to get the offer of a lifetime: brewing highly experimental beers for the Brewing Projekt.

How are local food and the farm-to-table concept important to you and incorporated into your restaurant? Will: Being in the beer industry, coming by local ingredients isn’t always the easiest. The truth is the majority of our malts come from Chilton, Wisconsin (malting barley is a very capital-intensive business to get into, and there aren’t many that exist in North America let alone Wisconsin), and most of our hops from the Yakima Valley in the Pacific Northwest. Quality is ALWAYS first and foremost. Sowe tend to go for the best ingredients regardless of where they come from. That said we try very hard to source our additive type ingredients and some varieties of hops locally. We utilize Just Local Food’s network to help us bring in quality produce for beers like The Stolen Mile. We’ve also used local producers like Miss Bee Haven LLC for our honey, and we’ve been known to hit up the Eau Claire farmers market for pilot batch stuff! When we make pilot batches, we’re testing out new recipes to potentially make on a production scale (that is, 620 to 1,280 gallons). For example, we’ve made a Belgian Rhubarb Strong with rhubarb from the farmers market.

What is your five-yea goal for the business? Will and Eric: In five years we hopeto have settled into our new location, expanded distribution throughout Wisconsin, and have expanded into more Belgian-style hybrid beers as well as more sour and funky stuff. Our first go at barrel aging sour beers has turned out to be some really awesome beer, and we hope to do a lot more of that stuff in the future. One of our goals is to open a second, smaller brewery dedicated to terroir, that is those particular environmental conditions like soil and climate where the grapes are grown that give each wine its unique flavor and aroma. Doing more farmhouse-type ales and lagers utilizing ingredients we can grow ourselves like fruits, spices, herbs, and even hops and barley is also a goal.

What we’d like to do is operate a smaller farmhouse brewery, on- or off-site, where we would make small production batches of beer with barley that we’ve malted, hops that we’ve grown, etc. Logistically it is VERY difficult for us to do that with our current scale. We’d have to have a 40-acre farm dedicated just to us. So the goal is create a smaller brewery making “homegrown” beer. We’d also branch out into some of the old world wild/sour ales as well where the fermentation is spontaneous and comes from the air around. Ideally we’d be located in an apple orchard where there is lots of good “wild” brewer’s yeast just floating around in the ambient air.

What are your thoughts on the Local Challenge? Will: I think it is awesome. I always wonder what would happen if we dropped a big glass dome over the Chippewa Valley, what would happen. I think we’ve got the goods and the ability to stand up quality-wise to anywhere else. It’s very exciting that more and more people are taking pride in our local economy and the products

Support Farm Fresh

By Emily Schwartz

There’s nothing quite like strolling through a bustling farmers market early on a Saturday morning, basket and cash in hand, looking through the rainbow array of fresh produce. With a growing trend towards locally sourced foods, it’s no wonder why farmers markets are popping up everywhere. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that the number of farmers markets exploded by over 75% in the past eight years. In 2014, there were over 8,400 markets in cities across the country. And, that growth shows no signs of slowing down!

Don’t want to miss out on the farmers market fun this summer?  Here are several tried-and-true tips for making your trip to the farmers market a success:

►Arrive early. Many vendors bring a limited amount of produce each week, so head to the farmers market early for the best selection. Early morning shopping also often means smaller crowds and more opportunities to chat with farmers and fellow market-goers.

►Cash is king. When heading to a farmers market, remember to bring the cash! Although growing in popularity, most vendors don’t have the capabilities to accept credit or debit cards at this time. Some markets do accept SNAP/EBT cards and WIC vouchers. If in doubt, swing by the ATM before heading to the market. Also, vendors appreciate bills in smaller denomination.

►Bring a bag or a basket. To help keep costs down, it is best practice to bring a reusable bag or basket to carry all of the wonderful items you find. Dont worry if you happen to forget! Vendors will always have a few extras.

►Ask questions. Farmers are farmers because they love the food that they grow. They are incredibly knowledgeable about the fruits of their labor – no pun intended – and enjoy sharing information about their growing practices and favorite preparation techniques.

►Try something new. Farmers markets provide the opportunity to branch out from the traditional Russet potatoes, Roma tomatoes and Red Delicious apples. In fact, many local growers offer more unusual or heirloom varieties of common fruits and vegetables that are more suitable for our Wisconsin climate and growing season. Farmers markets provide the perfect opportunity to try something new like purple carrots or multicolored tomatoes. And, there are frequently samples!

►Get creative. One of the beautiful things about shopping at farmers markets is seasonality. Although farmers are often able to give a good prediction of what will be available in the upcoming weeks, there is little certainty from week to week. So, head to the farmers market with an open mind and prepare to get creative!

►Bring the family. With a bounty of delicious and nutritious foods, the farmers market is the perfect venue to get kids excited about fruits and vegetables. Markets also offer the unique opportunity to learn more about where food comes from, how it is grown and what can be done with it.

►Have fun! There are few activities that are comparable to shopping at a farmers market. Enjoy the lively atmosphere, befriend a farmer and  have fun eating the freshest of foods!