Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Outstanding In The Field & Love Is Love

From the Farm to the Table:
I absolutely must deliver a quick interjection to my regularly scheduled posting about my trip to Italy to share an amazing experience I had two weekends ago in Atlanta. Unfortunately for my step-dad (but fortunately for me), he had to make an unexpected trip to Alabama to take care of his mother, leaving me his ticket to the Outstanding In The Field organic dinner and farm tour at Gaia Gardens on the outskirts of Atlanta.

 Outstanding In The Field's mission is "reconnecting diners to the land", bringing people to the bit of earth their food is born from, seeing the process of deriving that food, and learning more about how it gets to the table.  The collaboration of sorts began back in 1999, when founder Jim Denevan decided to revolutionize the dining experience and bring eaters to the source of their eats! Since then, every May through November, Jim and his traveling crew have been setting up mile-long tables in the middle of beaches, caves, and farms all over the U.S. and now in Europe!

The man himself, Jim Denevan

Jim is also a widely known sculptor and artist--
this is a photo of one of his famous sand designs

The dinner and farm tour started at 3pm so we arrived a little after, knowing this was most likely going to be a long night. Once there, we were guided straight to through Gaia Gardens and onto the Love Is Love  farm. We gathered in the back near the okra plantings and enjoyed some viognier from Tiger Mountain Vineyards, a winery nestled not to far away in the Northern mountain of Georgia. To accompany the wine we were served a couple interesting bites (of which I was unable to snap quick photos of - I'm sorry!); shrimp cracklings, which kind of resembled a shrimp flavored rice puff or cake, spicy cheese fingers, and local bacon lacquered with sorghum and drizzled with hollandaise... pretty amazing. 

Our pre-dinner drinks and apps gathering

After a short speech from Jim and one of his crew members, we embarked on our farm tour with Joe Reynolds, one half of the dream team that operates the farm. Joe explained the different types of produce that is grown at the farm and how the climate and soil in north Georgia affects the plants. Thankfully, Georgia clay is richly nutrient and the climate allows for planting for about 30 weeks out of the year. 

Joe discussing the planting process
Love Is Love Farm in all aspects reflects it's name; love the earth and land you work and it will love you back with produce. Joe and his counterpart, Judith, are very careful in their farming processes, using only natural resources to ensure the best quality product possible and sustainable methods to derive them. 

Pictured above is Joe talking about his mulch and letting guests take a wiff. The farm is roughly only a few acres and the amount of hard work and "love" that Joe and Judith put into the land shows the incredible amount of crop they are able to extract from just a small parcel. Below are pictures of the different varieties of lettuces, okra, and Joe standing in front of his bean plants.

Following the tour we were called to grab our plates and make our way to the 160 seat table, stretching nearly the entire length of the farm.

Outstanding In The Field has a "bring your own plates" policy, but of course for those forgetful few (i.e. Me and my Mom) they have plenty extra to accommodate. 

Our part of the table

The delightful menu

Mom and I on the farm
We sat down and examined the menu, every detail described and origins of ingredients labeled. If it didn't come from Love Is Love, it came from somewhere near by in Georgia and all of the proprietors were there to answer questions. We met the woman who owned the goat farm that provided the lovely cheese for our second course and the cattle farmer that sat down a few seats next to us, who provided the tasty ribeye for our main.

Our chef's corner, where executive chef, Linton Hopkins,
of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, prepared our delish dishes

After sitting, we first tested the breads; a crusty sourdough shaped like a wheat reed and a crusty olive and nut loaf accompanied by a sea salted fresh butter made from local cow's milk with wildflower petals... creamy salty heaven! Our server greeted us and informed our table that everything would be shared family style; one huge dish per 6 diners. She served us a different glass of wine, a rose also from Tiger Mountain, and  quickly set down our first helping to share, a massive salad. The salad consisted of several different varieties of radish, crispy kale, beets, basil, turnips, sorrel, and plump trout roe, all topped with a creamy but light fresh herb buttermilk dressing. There were so many flavors, but they all managed to work together in one crisp bite.

After sampling the garden, literally, we went on to the next course which was luscious and juicy ribeye medallions drizzled with arugula butter, served with "sweet potato dauphine", a sort of fried sweet potato soufflé, and braised turnip greens.

This course was served with Tiger's mountain cyn, a rare blend of grapes with a smooth but slightly spicy taste. The ribeye was tender and the sweet potatoes were the perfect crisp compliment to the wilted and slightly bitter turnips. 

In between courses we took a moment to smile for the camera with our dear friends Sandy and Dale Stice, our dinner date for the night. For our third tasting, we received huge chunks of delicious goat cheese from the Decimal Place goat farm rolled in herbs and sitting on a bed of pickled veggies, eggplant puree, spiced pecans, and toped with a cranberry-walnut crisp. 

Though goat cheese can be a little too strong for my taste, and though my mom has never been particularly fond of the tangy flavor, this cheese was surprisingly mild and when combined with the puree, veggies, and nuts, made for the perfect balance of sour, sweet, spicy, and salty. As per the trend, we were served yet another lovely Tiger Mountain wine, a nice rich cabernet franc. 

Once we had our fill of the creamy but decadent cheese, we still had the dessert course to tackle. In addition to a small plate filled with little delights like Jack Daniel's truffles and espresso covered marshmallows, we were served an Elijay apple gel sprinkled with caramelized sugar shards, white chocolate caramel sauce, and a spiced buckwheat cake. 

Holy Moly.

Icing on the cake... or plate
Of course we were served a super sweet, but just as delicious dessert wine accompaniment, but we just about taped out before we could have more than a sip. The food was over-the-top and the company and hosts were just as fantastic. I've never felt closer to the farm and more in tune with the food I put in my body than at that dinner. What an amazing and enlightening experience. I would recommend this to anyone! Though Oustanding will be dormant until next May, visit their website for updates on the 2012 tour and go connect with the land, people, and farms that make your meals possible! 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Day 8: Pompeii & Pizza

Exploring Two Cultures, Ancient and Living:
We woke early to catch our transfer to the ancient ruin city of Pompeii, located just southeast of Naples and the great Mount Vesuvius, which blanketed the city with volcanic ash in 79AD, sadly killing everyone in sight. Our guide, Elvira (though her personality was opposite what her name suggested), met us at the gates to the eerily vacant town. Though populated with tourists, there was still something very lost and sad about the site. We first entered the gladiator training area and barracks, where gladiators would prepare and practice for their turn in the ring.

We then ventured to two performance amphitheaters. One for music and the other, more larger venue, for theater. While excavating, archaeologists found several preserved instruments in the orchestra area of the buildings that can now be seen in the museum in Naples. 

Walking along the rocky streets you can see long worn-in impressions on the stone from where chariots passed by. Because the streets got so dirty, given the lack of proper sewage systems, water was constantly washed over the rock to clean away the dirt and dinge. The streets were always wet and thus, raised stones were placed as a sort of walkway for patrons to keep their clothing from getting damp or dirty.

The citizens of Pompei were actually very forward thinking when it came to food. It would be appropriate to credit them for the idea of "fast food" considering they had several shops along the main streets where a passerby could purchase a quick bite to eat from a storefront window. 

Patrons could see what types of stews or food was available by peeking into the big clay vats insulated by the stone counter and could grab their taste right off the sidewalk. 

The people of Pompei were also skilled bakers and had mastered the art of crafting large ovens. Most kitchen areas in the homes of the wealthy featured their own ovens, but there were also "bakery" type stores where goods could be bought and brought home. 

The oven inside a traditional Pompei bakery
In addition to their advances in cooking, these people had also perfected their own water system. Though the water traveled through lead pipes (probably not so great for their health), water could travel throughout the city freely and into wells for drinking. 

The wealthiest of citizens lived in villas, which sported their own small kitchens and lavish dining rooms with gorgeous frescos adorning the walls. 

The dining room of a wealthy Pomeiian family

A typical kitchen in a large villa
I could have walked the streets of Pompeii for hours on end, exploring all the different storefronts, villas, and of course the famed brothels (which I will refrain from posting pictures of because of their not-so-"tasteful" nature). We did visit the public baths, where citizens went to bathe, relax, unwind, and take care of business (in more ways than one). We also went to the city center, where there had been a modern marketplace to trade or buy goods, all of the political buildings, and also religious centers and temples. There was so much to take in, but walking around the preserved ruins, it was easy to picture what life must have been like back in '70s (obviously not the 1970s). 

A stone basin used for hot coals to
produce steam for the baths

Remnants of a temple in the city center

Mom standing in the Southeast corner of the city,
Mount Vesuvius looming in the background 
After our informative but somewhat quick tour, we hoped back in the van and headed back towards the beach in Positano, to Tre Sorelle, where we had our welcome dinner on our first night. We met with one of the granddaughters of the original "three sisters", who currently manages and runs the place along with her family. 

Though we were there for pizza making, we started with two fun appetizers; flash fried zucchini chips and deep fried eggplant. We used a very sharp mandolin to thinly slice the zucchini as teeny as sheets of paper. Once sliced we threw them into a pot filled with hot olive oil and pulled them out almost as quickly as we tossed them in. We then coated them with sea salt, cracked pepper, white vinegar, and set them aside. 

We then washed, drained, and squeezed (to get out the excess water) the eggplant to prepare for frying. Instead of slicing it into chips, we cut the eggplant into cubes, coated them in some flour, and fried them deep and much longer than the zucchini. Once finished, we sprinkled on salt and pepper and added them to a larger saute pan with crushed grape tomatoes, garlic, and more olive oil. We let the ingredients marry for a couple minutes and then emptied them out into another perfectly painted ceramic serving dish.

Once we completed our amazing apps, we moved onto the main event; Pizza! We first learned the basics of dough; flour, yeast, water, and olive oil. We dissolved a cube of yeast in some warm water then added the frothy mixture to a small flour mountain we had formed on the table. We got our hands dirty mixing the yeast and flour together, adding a little salt and olive oil till the dough formed the right consistency (which is of course, whenever our little non-English-speaking pizza expert tells us to stop mixing). We set the dough aside in these large tupperware type containers to rise, but thankfully at Le Tre Sorelle, they always have dough ready to go, so we grabbed some already risen rounds and go to working. 

Our strictly Italiano pizza teacher and
the wood-burning oven

Before we started cooking, our pizza chef pulled out some
olive oil dusted and seasoned dough for us to try--

Pizza dough can be very finicky. Overwork it and it tenses up so tight you can't hardly get it to spread out. Underwork it and you'll probably have a way too thick pizza, bordering Chicago style, but without the deep dish to justify your poor job. It takes a delicate but deliberate hand, gently spreading out the dough, starting in the center and working to the edges in a circular motion. (Did you get all that?) Don't try anything ridiculous like tossing it in the air. You will only end up overworking the dough and/or taking out a friend because the dough is actually quite heavy. 

Learning to work the dough

Once we had our round and relatively thin slabs of dough, we added just a touch of tomato sauce (pre-made by the Chef's at Tre Sorelle). We only added just enough to coat the dough, being careful not to over-sauce, which would make the pizza too soggy. If you are huge tomato sauce connoisseur, my suggestion would be to have some for dipping on the side. 

To me, the best pizzas only have a few toppings in addition to the mozzarella; spicy salami and basil, onions and peppers, olives and pepperoncini; the simpler, the better. You also can't go wrong with adding a little olive oil tossed fresh arugula to the pie once its out of the oven. 

Mom putting her olive & mozzarella pizza in the oven

My finished pizza:
spicy salami, basil, & mozzarella topped with fresh arugula

Before sitting down to feast our freshly baked pizzas, we tried our hand at panna cotta, a traditional Italian dessert. Surprisingly easy to make, panna cotta consists very basically of fresh cream, gelatin, and a very cold refrigerator type machine. We prepared the gelatin sheets using a little bit of water (a la instructions given by the chef) and mixed the cream with just a little bit of sugar over low heat. Sometimes a bit of flavor is added, like vanilla or mint, but we kept it simple. We then combined the sweetened cream with the soaked gelatin sheets and poured them into small stainless steel rounds lined with oil. Usually the mixture would need to chill in a refrigerator for at least 3 hours or so, but with the special cooling apparatus at the restaurant, our panna cotta was ready in just under an hour. Once out we were offered several homemade sauces to decorate...

I chose to make strawberry, caramel, chocolate drenched
panna cotta.. not so pretty, but boy did it taste good!

Sadly, this not only was our last class in Positano, but our last night on the coast. We savored every last bite of our dinner and took in the last sites of that beautiful dreamlike city. Tomorrow, ROMA!

"Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after your are gone..." - John Steinbeck