A Burger and Music on the Farm

by Stephanie Schneider, Together Farms

What could be better than a juicy grassfed-beef burger with your choice of delicious sides eaten while in a pastoral setting among rolling hills down on the farm? Throw in some great music to listen to while you eat, yard games to play, a rooster crowing every now and then, and grateful pigs you can feed your non-pork leftovers to, and you have the ingredients of an entertaining, pleasant, and appetite-satisfying evening for all ages. And don’t forget the huge farm dog, Mr. Fluffypants, who will greet you in exchange for some petting time.

Stephanie and Andy Schneider’s Together Farms, near Mondovi, Wisconsin, has been a source of grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as woodland pork, since 2012. They have a store on site, meat and freezer meals can be delivered via their food route or shipping, and their products are available from several local retail locations and restaurants.

But new this summer is their Burger Night. “I honestly don’t remember how exactly I came up with Burger Night. I know it came to me over five years ago, and since then I’ve been asking everyone if they thought it was a good idea or if I was crazy, and not everyone said crazy!” Stephanie says. “So I’ve just been waiting for the right relationships to be in place to actually pull it off and finally! Here it is!” Of course, they needed a lot of other things to be in place to get all the licenses and permits too. “Turns out that pulling off events like these requires much more than you’d imagine, but if the right people get behind your [crazy?] idea, then magic happens.” And, yes, it is pretty magical.

One of a number of great chefs from around the Chippewa Valley will be on hand to add just the right touch to each Burger Night’s menu, which offers several burger choices, including Drunken Hawaiian, The Minimalist, The Good Fat Burger, Olive and Swiss, The Spicy One, and Bacony BBQ Cheeseburger. The health-promoting fats make it into the French fries and cheese curds too, which are fried in the vitamin D-rich lard from the farm’s pigs. There is even a kid’s meal option of a slider with cheddar cheese, a small serving of fries, and applesauce. Of course, a Burger Night would not be complete without beer or wine from the farm’s Woodshed Tavern, which also has plenty of excellent non-alcoholic options, including WiscoPop and Sprechers.

The Schneiders practice Intensive Rotational Grazing (animals are moved every one to three days), and they try to be as transparent as possible about what they feed the animals. “Health is our goal, and it’s the goal of most of our customers. That means 100 percent grass, 100 percent of the time. But we also know that labels and marketers try to confuse them, not only by what is said, but also by what isn’t said,” Stephanie notes. “We don’t play any gimmicks or use grass feeding terms that are meant to confuse you—our beef and sheep are born and raised here and are fed no grain ever, just grass/clover, minerals, apple cider vinegar, and some essential oils.” When it comes time for processing, the animals are treated and processed humanely by an Animal Welfare Approved processing facility.

Burger Night will take a hiatus though August, then return with gusto Friday, September 8. See their website (www.togetherfarms.com) for the schedule of dates and upcoming musical guests, a list of what and what not to bring, and directions.

Stephanie says they already have plans to construct a new building with its own kitchen to better facilitate Burger Night, Wine Nights, and other events at the farm. Watch for Together Farms on the PBS program Wisconsin Foodie, scheduled to air next spring.

Kitchen Transparency Enhances Your Dining Experience

by Amy Huo, Executive Chef, The Informalist

In the age of the Food Network, the Travel Channel, of Anthony Bourdain and Top Chef, kitchens and chefs have become rock stars. But in the age of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and other public review platforms, they’re finding themselves the subject of increased public scrutiny. Sometimes the dining public is not familiar with how fine dining kitchens really work. Most people would agree that it matters that you know your farmer, but it’s also important to know your chef and the kitchen that chef works in.

Understanding the rigorous process in which most chefs and cooks engage to bring you a plate of food can enhance your enjoyment of your meal and your appreciation for the chef and cooks. In most kitchens, a kitchen manager, a chef, or some other worker plugs in an order via the computer or a fancy new iPad (if they’re lucky) maybe two or three times a week. This means that most raw food items are delivered in large boxes off of a semi pulled up to the restaurant’s back door. How has this process changed as of late? At The Informalist our process of ordering is very different. On any given day, as the executive chef, I handle orders from twenty or more farmers, farmers markets, producers, and butchers to ensure our kitchen has everything that it needs to keep the menu fully stocked for guests to enjoy. Add to this, farmers who may show up at the back door with produce they have left over or could not sell elsewhere, and it becomes almost a full-time job to just keep the kitchen fully stocked.

But ordering for a menu in place is only one part of the farmer-chef relationship. We must be thinking months ahead at all times. For example: pickling apple blossoms and lilacs for a dish that may not go on the menu until July or freezing rhubarb for rhubarb ketchup next January. Parcooking and freezing, pickling, drying, and otherwise preserving vegetables at the peak of their freshness is what allows us to stay 80 percent local even during the winter. Produce that arrives fresh has a day, or maybe two, before it has lost its life and luster. Respecting ingredients and the farmers who produce them means never allowing that produce to go to waste. While we do compost as much as possible from our kitchen, we consider throwing away any produce that has not been properly cared for an absolute sin. Because our ordering process is so complicated, because we know our farmers so intimately, and because this is very important to us at The Informalist, we are able to keep waste to a minimum.

Because kitchens and chefs have become so visible as of late, I believe it is equally important to make fine dining kitchen processes as transparent as the chefs that lead them. In farm-to-table kitchens like ours, or The Lakely,  ordering isn’t simply plugging in numbers to an already-set system of bulk ingredients. It is planning ahead, it is understanding how much staff can devote hours to preservation, and frankly how much sheer space a kitchen allows to execute an 80 or 90 percent locally sourced and grown menu. It is speaking with local farmers and producers about growing seasons, how much rain we expect, whether their soil is suited to grow a certain kind of vegetable, or why White Park beef is superior to Scottish Highland. I am not insinuating that these conversations don’t happen in other kitchens in the area, but what I believe is important to understand is that a farm-to-table locally sourced kitchen is a unique sector of the restaurant world. The sheer amount of work and dedication to simply employing day-to-day processes of ordering can boggle the mind.

At the end of the day, does understanding this process help a diner enjoy the plate of food in front of them at a restaurant? Does knowing that the chef spent hours reaching out to farmers, amassing ingredients, adapting recipes to fit locally available products, and training cooks to appreciate those ingredients change how diners look at their entrees when they “hit” the table? I feel that in most cases, it must contribute to a dining experience in the same way that cooking for oneself and one’s beloved friends or family does. That is to say, when you do the work, you can appreciate the result. And being aware of the work that goes into your meal can help you appreciate the result too. Increasing the transparency of kitchen processes can only help farmers and chefs alike, as well as your own personal dining experience.

One, Two, Three Orchards: Local Apples Galore!

For most people, keeping one orchard going strong would be challenge enough. But Ron Knutson (aka Ronnie Appleseed) has his hands full currently caring for not one, not two, but three orchards. Halverson’s Orchard was the first. “Around 2009/2010, my wife’s (Shelly) Aunt Kay knew the Halversons, and Dennis Halverson was needing help with pruning, so we met and reached an agreement: we would prune the trees in exchange for some apples,” Ronnie explains. “In 2016 Dennis, who had cancer, passed away, and the family graciously turned over the management to us.  Also, in 2015, we heard at the Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference that Class Apple was looking for somebody to manage it. A small 1.5-acre pick-your-own orchard was just what we wanted. We made inquiries about the orchard and contacted Lorretta. She had lost her husband, Dale, the year prior, also to cancer, and with the family living out of town, she needed someone to take care of it. So we took that on as well.”

Their third (original) orchard is AVEnue Orchard. Ronnie notes, “We purchased what was formerly known as The Apple Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast in October of 2007 but didn’t move in until January 31, 2008, after General Billy Mitchell Air Reserve Base, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, closed, and I retired. Instead of a bed-and-breakfast, we are an adult family home. I was going to retire and just do a little woodworking, primarily making flag cases, but the great outdoors called me, the trees were crying for help, and a new adventure was born. WE HAVE AN ORCHARD! So we added 1,500 more trees and two more small orchards.”

AVEnue Orchard sells jarred and canned goods, as well as prepicked apples. “I think we have as many varieties of jams, jellies, fruit butters, sauces, and pie filling as we do apple varieties, which is at twenty-six and counting,” Ronnie laughs. “And we are always dreaming up new recipes. This year’s leader in our jarred and canned goods is our Strawberry Rhubarb, followed closely by Chai Apple Butter, and who would have guessed but gaining fast is our new Apple Watermelon.  Strawberry Jam, Strawberry Hobenaro, and Apple Pie Jelly are neck-and-neck and close behind.”

What kinds of apples does AVEnue Orchard offer? This year there will be twenty-six varieties available:

Chestnut Crab
Connell Red
Cortland
Daybreak Fuji
Duchess
Empire
Grimes Golden
Haralred
Haralson
Honey Crisp
Honey Gold
Jonamac
Liberty
McIntosh
Northwest Greening
Paula Red
Prairie Spy
Red Delicious
Regent
Snow Sweet
State Fair
Sweet 16
Whitney Crab
Wolf River
Yellow Transparent
Zestar

Our pears are:
Bartlett
D’Anjou

Available for pick-your-own at Class Apple, are Honey Crisp, Cortland, McIntosh, Connell Red, Empire, and Honey Golds. “At Class Apple, we have cider, our very own blend from our very own apples. Class Apple is a quiet place to come and enjoy the greatness of God’s country,” Ronnie says. “Bring your picnic baskets along, you ain’t gonna wanna leaf,” he jokes.

AVEnue Orchard generally opens around mid-August. Class Apple opens September 9 and is open Saturdays and Sundays 12:00 to 5:00 pm, and will close October 8. Halverson’s is not open to the public.

Ronnie seeks to promote access to and use of local food products. “I love it. As much as possible, all our products are from local sources. It is a well-deserved and an awesome show of support to the local farmers, who work hard at bringing you a quality product. Besides, it always tastes better when it ripens on the vine.”

“Oh,” he hastens to add. “I forgot honey! We have honey. Yes, we have the bees here. Fascinating creatures they are.”

Mike’s Star Market: Local Meats Equal Good Eats

In business since 1990/1991, Mike’s Star Market in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, offers beef, lean pork sausage and brats, as well as handmade condiments and custom spice mixes. All their beef is hormone free, and they also offer some grass-fed beef. They have hormone-free chicken and local lamb too.
The “Mike” in Mike’s Star Market is Mike Maier.

“I actually got into the meat business because I needed a job in the late fall of 1987. My grandfather was working for a guy that was looking for help with venison processing, cutting, and wrapping. I gave it a try. My grandmother first taught me how to wrap steak and ground venison. Then after a bit, my grandfather taught me how to cut. Being a farm kid, I already knew a little about it, just not how to do cuts. I for some reason picked it up quickly. Then after that first season I was kept on part-time to cut and learn how to make some sausage items. I came back in the fall to take over my grandfather’s spot as he moved to Arizona. I cut and learned more cutting and then sausage making from Jan, who owned the shop.”

Of the various meat markets in the area, Maier feels his stands out, primarily due to the great employees. He notes, “It is not just a Mike thing, it takes others to help.” Another thing that makes the market stand out is a desire to always learn more and to strive to make already good products better. Maier notes that their products undergo only minimal processing. He adds, “We also, like other small businesses, care about our customers. Being in business this long, many customers can be called friends.”

Mike’s Star Market provides meat to some local businesses, and they also have a retail counter and freezers. Maier says, “You can stop in and buy what you like or order in large amounts. Not much we can’t do or offer. If we can’t do it, we know other meat shops in the area that can, and we will point you in that direction.”

What is important to Maier and his staff is to provide good meat to customers. “I want you to be satisfied with first quality and flavor,” he says. “Because we make sausage here, we can control the quality. We try to hold ourselves to a higher standard and offer a good price for what the consumer buys or wants—which is always changing.”

Mike’s Star Market also offers venison processing, from cutting the whole deer to making a very wide variety of sausage items. They offer custom smoking of most anything, excluding fish. They can do custom cut animals for farmers who bring them in or have them butchered on the farm or another facility. As Mike says, “Not much we can’t or won’t do, meat related.”

Baby Food 101

By: Emily Schwartz, Festival Foods

Food introduced in the first year of life can impact future nutrition habits. For the first six months of life, breastfeeding is widely recommended. However, between six to eight months of age, most infants are developmentally ready to try pureed, mashed, or “lumpy” foods to compliment breast milk (or iron-enriched formula). These new foods and textures may take multiple offerings before acceptance. So to start, it is important to gradually offer a variety of foods one-at-a-time to help the infant’s palate and digestive system to adjust.

Jarred baby food is a quick and convenient way to help growing infants get the nutrition they need. It offers a consistent texture and flavor that may be better received by “picky eaters,” and they are produced under strict food safety guidelines.

Homemade baby food is another option. Compared to commercial baby food, homemade baby food may be a more affordable option and may offer a wider variety of flavors. Whether looking to supplement or replace commercially produced baby food products, one of the easiest ways to start is to simply mash foods that may already be on your grocery list, like bananas or avocados. Or, try incorporating nutrition-packed foods that wouldn’t necessarily be found in jarred varieties, like pureed eggs, broccoli, kiwifruit, or no-salt-added canned beans.

Regardless of the food served, infants and young children are very impressionable. The actions and behaviors of those around can impact the development of food preferences and eating behaviors. Whenever possible try eating (and enjoying!) the same food your baby is eating.

Steps for Making Baby Food

  1. Start with clean hands, cooking surfaces, and equipment.
    1. Even though infants and children are more susceptible to food-borne illness, it is always a good practice to wash hands with warm, soapy water and sanitize any surfaces or equipment before food preparation.
  2. Prepare food; washing, peeling, and trimming, as needed.
    1. Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Peel and trim, if necessary. If preparing meat or fish, remove all skin, bones, gristle, and excess fat.
  3. Cook and/or process food.
    1. Cook food, if necessary, until very tender. Boiling, steaming, or microwaving food with water is often ideal. When preparing meat or fish, cook to well done. Allow cooked food to cool slightly before pureeing or mashing to reach desired consistency. Adding a small amount of water may be necessary to achieve an appropriate texture.
  4. Serve or store.
    1. If food is not going to be eaten right away, store it in the refrigerator for up to two days, or freeze for use within a month. Freezing baby food in ice cube trays can help provide baby-sized portions when they’re needed. Small portion sizes are important because any leftover food, regardless if it is homemade or commercially prepared, should be thrown away due to exposure to bacteria.

Some combinations to try after introducing individual foods:

  • No-salt-added canned black beans (drained and rinsed) and avocado
  • Kiwifruit and banana
  • Baby cereal and berries
  • Sweet potato and applesauce

Emily Schwartz is a nationally accredited, registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) serving the Eau Claire and La Crosse communities as Festival Foods’ Western Wisconsin Regional Dietitian.